Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How should the US engage Burma?

How should the US engage Burma?  How best can the US help the people of Burma? 

This post is based on my jots from the recent Senate hearing on US-Burma relations.   (For an overview of the hearing see, "Burma is not Vietnam." See also "Burmese slam Senate hearings" and "US Senate AWOL on Burma.")

The first step towards engaging Burma is to convince the country's paranoid junta   that you have no plans to invade or bomb their country.  Given that the US has done plenty of invading and bombing over the years, that's a tough sell.  Especially to a group of generals who live in a fortified bunker-city deep in the jungle.   Anyway, this problem was the focus of an exchange between the senator chairing the meeting and the Dep. Sec. of State. 

Sen. Webb asked Dep. Sec. of State Kurt Campbell about "covert funding to exile groups."

Campbell replied, "Another forum would be a better place to address that issue."

"We shall pursue that in another forum" replied Sen. Jim Webb.

Sen. Webb asked Campbell if he would like to comment on any exile groups that might want to overthrow the government; Webb asked whether Campbell had had made it "clear" during his recent meetings with Mynamar "that we have no military objectives to overthrow their government?"

Campbell replied that "we need to make it clear" to the Burmese through "dialogue" that we "have no intention to overthrow the government."
Thant Myint-U, an author and scholar, stressed that key opportunities had been missed.  New leadership had brought in satelite TV, and so on, the government had sought engagement but the US had not reciprocated.    Had we not stood in the way of gradual change, there would have been more change for the better.

Myint-U said that "a new generation of leaders, aged 40-50, is coming up in Burma.  They lack combat experience."  Myint-U explained that the transition to the new constitution will coincide with a change in Burma to a new, younger group of leaders.

"Unexpected changes" are likely, he said, especially as constitutionally mandated change coincides with changes within the ranks of the army.

Thant Myint-U emphasized the importance of "elite exposure."  He said we need to influence the minds of the officer corps.  Myint-U made several other suggestions:
  • use disaster risk reduction towards this ends 
  • lift the ban on the import of garments.
  • encourage the shift from military to civilian rule by increasing the competency of civilian technocrats.
David Steinberg of Georgetown University spoke of the need for "helping people."  He said that although this includes democracy and human rights, it encompasses other issues as well.   The choice, to Steinberg, was between short-term Vs. long term focused policy.  Beyond a point, insistence on immediate or short term political reform and  progress on human rights issues could come at the cost of important efforts that could yield long term positive results.

Steinberg suggested that the US and Burma relations were at a "critical nexus."  And, asking what might be done, listed five things, but emphasized that the US needs to "set its sights as changes occur in society, and the country becomes  more open."
  1. A US ambassador to Burma needs approval, confirmation by the Senate.
  2. Humanitarian assistance needs upgrading.
  3. Minority questions are paramount, and must be addressed.
  4. Rohingya problem is tops.  "These stateless people on the Burma-Bangladesh border are the most deprived of all Burma's minorities."
  5. Restrictions on NGOs dating back to 2006 need to be lifted. 
Steinberg urged the Obama Administration "not to depend on any individual or group for the development of US foreign policy."     He further recommended the government "prepare to answer criticism that you are 'giving legitimacy' to the government.of Burma.  Steinberg said, "If we can help the people of Burma, then this benefit overrides any minor increase in legitimacy."

David Williams of Indiana University spoke of the Karin as the  Scotch Irish of the hills, a fiercely independent people.  "They need our help," he said.

Williams spoke of "suffering on a Biblical scale" along Burma's borders.  He described an epidemic of rapes.    "Reading individual accounts of women is excruciating" he said, describing one woman who was raped while reaping rice. 

Williams said the US should supply cross-border aid (not just to refugees on the Thailand side), demand an end to these attacks on civilians, and initiate trilateral talks which include both the NLD and the military junta.
Photos: by Jotman.  Top left, Sen. Jim Webb. On the right is Kurt Campbell.


  1. my 2 cents...

    america - which is my country - should keep their nose out of other countries UNTIL said countries harm them.

    american money should be spent on americans - NOT on foreign countries.

    if the people of other countries want change in their country, they should NOT expect others to sacrifice their lives for it.

    if they want change, they should sacrifice THEIR lives for it.

    america has sacrificed so many lives for others, and what do they get for it? ..disdain.

    the UN votes are a perfect example of the disdain shown by other countries towards america. EXCEPT for israel, EVERY country in the world votes AGAINST america MOST of the time where UN votes are concerned.

    about 200 BILLION dollars a year is donated by america to foreign countries EACH year, and what do we get for it? ..disdain.

    screw that policy.

    I say NOT one american dollar should go to other countries when there is even one american out of work or in need. PERIOD.

  2. Bangkok Buddy,

    Yes, things are messed up in the US, people are hurting. But does excess humanitarian assistance to other countries have any appreciable bearing on Americans' own suffering?

    First, as an estimate, the $200 B figure is high-end. Official government aid is much lower ($26 billion), so a much higher figure would have to include private charitable donations -- throw those in and you're looking at $123 B. The point here is, the bulk of US overseas humanitarian assistance comes from private sources. "Private" Americans are choosing to give that money away to other countries.

    Moreover, US GDP is $14 trillion, so even large-sounding numbers always need to be viewed in perspective.,3343,en_2649_34487_42458595_1_1_1_1,00.html


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