As part of its new strategic dialogue, Foreign Policy In Focus asked David Steinberg and Kyi May Kaung the following questions: “Which is the best way to effect change in Burma/Myanmar — through sanctions against the government, by engaging the leadership, or some combination of the two? Or, to put it another way, which case is more applicable to Burma: South Africa and regime change or China and gradual change?” Here is David Steinberg’s response:

The problems of Burma/Myanmar seem intractable. Sanctions of varying severity, public denunciations, international protestations, and vituperative language seem to have little affected the heightened power of the military regime in that state. Yet no other foreign policy issue facing Washington excites so little real dialogue on policy options. Isolation and quarantine are the preferred U.S. positions. The rigor and orthodoxy of Burmese military rule is also reflected in the orthodoxy of the opposition and their foreign institutional or personal supporters, whether expatriate Burmese or foreigners, especially Americans. Polarization of policy is even reflected in the surrogate indicator of legitimacy — the use of either Burma or Myanmar as the country’s name.

Objective observers can accurately catalogue, even if they cannot quantify because of unreliable data, the problems facing that state: declining standards of living and increasing poverty, denial of political and human rights, political prisoners, minority tensions, environmental degradation, anomie, and insecurity and fear. In spite of Burmese government protestations of their innocence and the sometimes hyperbolic denouncements by expatriate dissidents of the atrocities of the regime (of which there are many and they are inexcusable), the undebated issue is: what is the most effective means to induce positive change in that highly complex state?

External U.S., and to a lesser degree European Union, sanctions and restrictive policies toward Burma/Myanmar have been based on an essentially unquestioned, yet questionable, set of hypotheses or assumptions that: external public pressures can delegitimize the military government or force the ruling elite to give up power; the military leadership is uniformly in favor of its present autocratic and isolationist policies; presently the only alternative government is the National League for Democracy (NLD); political reforms must precede economic or social reforms; and sanctions, once imposed, can be eliminated with relative ease should positive changes take place. These assumptions are all based on the underlying premise (shared or initiated by the NLD) that the primary problem is political; that progress in economic, social, cultural or other arenas is not possible without prior political resolution; and that the predominant role of the military in any society is anathema.

External conceptions of legitimacy are based on two factors: the importance of elections and the capacity of the state to deliver goods and services to its public. In both areas the military state has obviously failed. The NLD swept the May 1990 elections and were denied their victory. Poverty is the plight of about half the population, and their situation is deteriorating. Health and education services are in disarray. Yet the issue is more complex, for although foreign conceptions of legitimacy are important, they are by no means necessarily paramount to internal factors. The issue of legitimacy may internally also be disaggregated: how minorities, for example, regard a central regime may be quite different from the views of the majority Burmese population.

Internal factors related to legitimacy include nationalism, Buddhism, and rewritten history, elements that the military have assiduously cultivated. These stresses tend to subvert foreign pressures, including most obviously sanctions, for it becomes incumbent on the regime to stand up to, or appear to defy, public foreign pressures, while the junta attempts to delegitimize the opposition as the “axe handles,” or supporters, of foreign imperialist powers, especially the United States, which continues to call for recognition of the results of the 1990 election.

Imposing economic sanctions exemplifies moral opprobrium. Those that impose them secure the moral high ground — politically important ground to those levying such sanctions and morally to those Burmese who have clearly suffered from regime opposition. But do sanctions work, and if so, when and how? Many suggest the effective anti-apartheid South African model, yet the analogy with Burma/Myanmar is not apt. In South Africa, all surrounding countries were in favor of sanctions; the elite, banking system, and business, and indeed civil society, were geared to Western Europe. Alas, none of the above applies to Burma. The only similarity is two attractive, brave Nobel Peace Prize winners. Perhaps a more apt example for Burma/Myanmar might be Cuba? Sanctions hurt ordinary people, not just governments.

It was patently evident that economic sanctions, unilaterally imposed or through the UN Security Council, could not succeed because none of the surrounding states, especially China but including India and ASEAN and even Japan, would condone such practices. Thus have sanctions essentially become theater, a public stage on which reality is set aside in favor of ineffective but well-meaning posturing. The moral position of the United States is undercut, however, by its less stringent human rights policies toward China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Pakistan, and other states.

The reality of the miasma in which Myanmar is now engulfed is better approached in responses rooted in a different set of assumptions reflecting the existential complexities of power in that state. These are:

  • The military’s primary goal is the retention of its effective authority.
  • The present military leadership, reflecting is role since independence, has no intention of relinquishing effective power, although it will likely eventually, at some unspecified time, mask its ultimate authority through a civilianized, tame, multi-party political system and present it to the world as “disciplined democracy.”
  • The leadership believes that the state is in dire danger of disintegration through minority secession, countenanced or supported by foreign elements, and that only the military can guarantee unity.
  • The present junta has no intention of allowing the NLD or its leadership to assume positions of supreme authority. Among the military are key but quiet individuals who would support more positive international and national policies if allowed.
  • The military leadership at the summit of power is hierarchically and often intentionally isolated from internal and external data, realities, and possibilities, and cannot normally be contradicted or even questioned.
  • Political, economic, and social systems (including the need for corruption) are closely integrated into entourage systems of personalized power that require multiple, coordinated approaches to reformation.
  • The enduring and endured problem facing the state has been, and is likely to continue to be, the development of some fair, Burmese method of the sharing of power among diverse cultural and ethnic groups, and that the present primary political focus obscures the more fundamental issue on which the long-term security of the state and its neighbors, and the well being of its peoples, depends.

Sanctions and related travel bans have cut off any effective higher level Western official contact with the military leadership. The public call for “regime change” or “unconditional surrender,” which are the effective sub-texts of this policy, results in reinforcing the regime’s belief that self-reliance and close relationships with its neighboring states, buttressed by its natural resource endowment and military power, can withstand such pressures, and that its own legitimacy is best maintained by a nationalistic response to foreign coercion. Yet the regime also fears the potential of external (U.S.) military intervention, which however unrealistic to foreign observers, is emotionally reinforced through the continuous foreign bellicose public language, which also encourages unrealistic expectations among some minority elements.

Sanctions, once imposed, politically cannot be removed without substantial progress the degree of which is likely to be disputed short of regime change. The most effective means to negotiate such change is the development of a policy that internationally guarantees the integrity of the Burmese state; begins a quiet, private dialogue directly or through Track II diplomacy with the leadership; results in specific mutual benchmarks on the part of the negotiating parties; supports humanitarian efforts through international non-governmental organizations and the fostering of an indigenous civil society, leading to pluralism; helps consolidate the roles of those in the elite seeking changes; and encourages alternative avenues of social mobility for aspiring youth that over time will lead to attractive opportunities for non-military advancement, and thus a diminished military role.

The possibilities of amelioration of the autocracy that is Burma/Myanmar do not primarily result from confrontational foreign policies to prompt economic collapse. Such changes are more likely to be based on a number of internal possibilities: internal military dissent over the tarnished reputation of the armed forces and their ineffective policies toward the people as a whole; the eventual passing of the present leadership to those more attuned to the state’s domestic and foreign needs; some unpredictable but egregious administration error that excites broad social protests; and some military-civilian compromise coalition that would include diverse elements in the societies that comprise that country. Compromise, a cardinal principle of democracies, is difficult, but however difficult should be encouraged, recognizing that it cannot completely satisfy all diverse groups. It is, however, better than autarchy. Democracy is not simply fair elections, but a process of building strong, pluralistic institutions over time–a process significantly bridled by a pattern of personalized power. However deftly formulated and administered, foreign influence in Burma/Myanmar will be constrained. Foreign blunderbuss policies are more than ineffective – they retard change.

Burma/Myanmar is strategically located and should be important to overall U.S. policies in East and South Asia. Isolation drives Burma/Myanmar into the orbits of its neighbors. Human rights and political liberalization should be elements of any U.S. strategy, but they remain only two strands of what needs to be a more knowledgeable, nuanced, calibrated, and multi-faceted set of approaches to that complex society.

Sanctions have failed their stated goal — regime change. International public condemnation has not produced progress. Dialogue also has no guarantee of success and may not immediately work, but it has not been appropriately tried. Effective change cannot be externally imposed, but external understanding and contact could support reformist elements if they could be realistically identified and discretely assisted. This could not occur unless foreign nations focus on the well being of the Burmese peoples through a process of positive change and not in an overthrow of the regime.

FPIF contributor David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor and Director, Asian Studies Program, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

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