The world keeps being surprised by the developing political situation in Myanmar/Burma. After they get over their surprise, the United States and its friends need to decide what they can do to help accelerate change.
Last week the government of Myanmar took an important step forward in releasing some 220 political prisoners, including a number of respected and prominent dissidents, but not all such prisoners. More need to be free. The much-anticipated move by President Thein Sein is nevertheless the most recent example pointing to Myanmar’s current government moving away from a disastrous half century of dictatorship.
When we visited in May, talk of reform was in the air but few concrete measures had been taken. The new government has now released dissidents, met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, known as ASSK, at the highest levels, created a National Human Rights Commission, somewhat eased media censorship, welcomed back overseas exiles and more publicly emphasized dialogue with ethnic-minority groups focused on a national reconciliation. Following some uncharacteristically open debate, President Sein suspended a controversial, Chinese-backed mega-dam project that would dislocate thousands of villagers, harm the environment, and contribute to ethnic conflict. Equally important for accelerating change, the new government recognizes its serious economic troubles and is reaching out to the IMF and other international financial institutions to help reorient its economy.
But the welcome signs of spring we see in Myanmar could come to a halt at any time. The country’s recent history has been one of top military men derailing reform-minded elements. Incessant rhetoric on the need for change is not enough. If this is indeed an important juncture, the Obama administration and congressional leaders should decide what they can do to bolster the voices of change in Myanmar.
Many U.S. observers understandably retain a healthy dose of skepticism. Certainly ASSK was skeptical but hopeful when we saw her in May. This government emerged out of highly flawed elections last November. Key democratic opposition felt forced to boycott those proceedings, and many of the “new” faces in government are from the old military junta. Ethnic conflict appears to have intensified, and Myanmar continues to maintain a troubling military relationship with North Korea. In short, Myanmar’s own experience—as well as our own—suggests that some caution is in order.
Rather than dwell on this government’s flawed origins or reflect on past missteps by the junta, it is more productive to judge Myanmar’s leaders by their actions. Suu Kyi recently said she sees signs of positive change and that President Sein is trying to make it happen. Since she has been an American guide for many years, we would do well to listen to her.
Instead of watching from the sidelines, President Obama and other Western leaders should publicly recognize what’s happening in Myanmar and respond. They must decide whether to continue to simply urge the apparent reformers to do more or to take practical measures to help them at a time of likely serious cleavages in the government. Some might be symbolic acts, but some could help provide badly needed economic reform. They could join the international community in calling the country by its current name—Myanmar—rather than its colonial one of Burma. If political reform expands, President Obama should call on President Sein and personally acknowledge his efforts at the East Asian Summit in several weeks. Over time, the U.S. administration should take care to match more receptive words and deeds with action of its own, gradually easing economic restrictions that lie exclusively within its powers as part of a calibrated approach.
It is not clear that the White House has much of a strategy beyond encouraging words. There has been no high-level buy-in in response to the country’s surprising developments. A more nimble approach is needed to support the reform process, to increase American influence in ways that help the country’s people and to show that we are committed to being a relevant player in securing a better future for the country.
Congress has a critical—perhaps the most important—role to play in supporting political and economic reforms in Burma. Administration officials are sometimes understandably reluctant to be bold and creative in the face of congressional pressure. Building better relations with Myanmar requires leadership from Capitol Hill. Our country’s experience in working to improve relations with Vietnam showed that patient and persistent congressional voices can encourage a repressive government to change course.
The Senate should consider an initial, symbolic step of allowing a Senate-confirmed ambassador to return to Myanmar. If Suu Kyi’s party decides to re-enter Myanmar’s political process and participate in the forthcoming by-elections, that could encourage Congress to respond positively. Myanmar’s nascent parliament is a work in progress and could benefit from senior-level exchanges. The government severely lacks capacity and know-how, and it desperately needs sound advice and the eventual support of international financial institutions such as the World Bank. Current congressional restrictions effectively prevent this kind of help.
Myanmar may be entering a new political era. Far from a democracy of any kind, its new efforts are worthy of U.S. support. It’s time to take advantage of this window of opportunity and begin seeking areas of cooperation with this new government that could help those trying to change the country and its people.
The authors are retired American diplomats.