World

General Malaise

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From the hills outside Mandalay, Burma’s second city, the vista resembles a postcard of Asian serenity. Monks climb stone steps to a hillside shrine, where local men and women leave offerings of flowers and fruit. But the placid scene conceals one of the most repressive states in the world--a state that the Obama administration has decided may be more worthy of American friendship than American threats.

For more than four decades, Burma’s junta has persecuted its population. In conflict-torn eastern Burma, the army reportedly employs state-sanctioned rape of women and girls, conscription of local children, and the burning of villages. Nearly one million Burmese have fled to neighboring countries, while those who stay are sometimes press-ganged into forced labor, during which, numerous reports reveal, they may be beaten or even killed. Dissent, of course, is virtually unthinkable. According to the documentary film Burma VJ, which chronicles the monk-led 2007 Saffron Revolution, troops raided monasteries after the protests, beating monks and tossing their dead bodies into creeks. The junta, meanwhile, has run the economy into the ground, while the regime’s senior leaders live in opulence.

From the hills outside Mandalay, Burma’s second city, the vista resembles a postcard of Asian serenity. Monks climb stone steps to a hillside shrine, where local men and women leave offerings of flowers and fruit. But the placid scene conceals one of the most repressive states in the world--a state that the Obama administration has decided may be more worthy of American friendship than American threats.

For more than four decades, Burma’s junta has persecuted its population. In conflict-torn eastern Burma, the army reportedly employs state-sanctioned rape of women and girls, conscription of local children, and the burning of villages. Nearly one million Burmese have fled to neighboring countries, while those who stay are sometimes press-ganged into forced labor, during which, numerous reports reveal, they may be beaten or even killed. Dissent, of course, is virtually unthinkable. According to the documentary film Burma VJ, which chronicles the monk-led 2007 Saffron Revolution, troops raided monasteries after the protests, beating monks and tossing their dead bodies into creeks. The junta, meanwhile, has run the economy into the ground, while the regime’s senior leaders live in opulence.

This record of atrocity doesn’t seem to have dissuaded the current administration in Washington from attempting to engage the Burmese regime. After more than a decade during which U.S. administrations have isolated the junta through sanctions, visa bans, and other measures, the Obama administration has decided to re-engage. Speaking to a group of foreign ministers in New York this September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that “[e]ngagement versus sanctions is a false choice, in our opinion. … To help achieve democratic reform, we will be engaging directly with Burmese authorities.”

The Burmese regime seemed to respond quickly to Washington’s warmth. Only weeks after the administration’s new policy was announced, the junta allowed foreign envoys in Burma to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held under house arrest on and off for nearly two decades. Then, last week, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell became the highest-level American official to visit Burma in more than a decade; he also was allowed to meet with Suu Kyi. A commentary in Burma’s state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, normally vehemently anti-Western, captured this new mood. Burma and the United States, it sunnily declared, had taken “the first step toward marching to a 1,000-mile destination.”

Don’t expect to see the end of that march any time soon. Over the past two decades, the junta has used similar promises of rapprochement to get what it wants from the outside world. With each fake new dawn, the Burmese generals have skillfully played the international community for fools, promising the West just enough to win aid and investment without ever really releasing the junta’s stranglehold on power.

 

Launched last winter, the Obama administration’s Burma policy review accompanied its decision to re-engage with other rogue actors like Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. Overall, the Obama administration apparently decided, there was no harm in talking to anyone, even the most destructive governments: Engaging would show the world that the isolationist George W. Bush was really gone, might actually deliver policy results that isolation could not, and could prevent the United States from losing the diplomatic game to China, which is always willing to deal with dictatorships.

When it came to Burma, the United States has decided, for now, to deal with the generals, and possibly help the long-suffering Burmese population. As one senior State Department official recently told me, “We’re moving forward to reach out to them no matter what they did in the past.” The administration, he said, plans to initiate high-level meetings between junta officials and State Department power players like Campbell. State will also start thinking up ways to work with China, the junta’s closest ally, to deliver more assistance to Burma. Already, the administration has allowed Burmese Foreign Minister Major General Nyan Win a rare visit to Washington. “These are the types of outreach we think [the junta] will respond to,” the State Department official said.

To date, the Burmese have fed this optimism. This year, the junta allowed Stephen Blake, a senior American diplomat, to visit the country and meet with its foreign minister, the first time such a high-ranking State Department policymaker had gone to Burma in nearly a decade. Meanwhile, in August, Senator Jim Webb, who heads the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, visited the nation, scoring an unusual audience with the dour, dough-faced junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, who normally disdains meeting foreigners. The junta also allowed Webb to meet with Suu Kyi.

Yet optimists like Webb ignore recent history at their peril: Time and again, the Burmese regime has softened just enough to win concessions, before reverting to its natural state. In the mid-1990s, the junta, hobbled by international isolation, made similar promises. It began wooing investment from the United States, Japan, and neighboring Southeast Asian nations, and it allowed Suu Kyi and her party more freedom to operate. Foreign investors flocked to Burma, which boasts abundant natural resources and architectural wonders that could make it a tourist magnet. During that period, Burma’s neighbors invited it to join the most important regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an honor the regime had craved.

Yet, by the end of that decade, the junta had turned its back on the world. Having reaped enough foreign investment to keep the economy afloat, and clearly fearful that any more opening could threaten the regime’s hold on power, the junta cracked down. It started seizing assets it wanted, and it placed Suu Kyi under total house arrest once again, shuttering many offices of her party.

In 2002 and 2003, desperate for aid and investment, the junta again fooled the outside world. At the time, many foreign Burma-watchers saw Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, the urbane head of military intelligence and main interlocutor with foreign nations, as a supposed “moderate.” Khin Nyunt announced a “road map to democracy” and again freed Suu Kyi. New aid money flowed into Burma. Sitting at the posh Traders Hotel in Rangoon in late 2002, I listened to Western diplomats confidently predict that Burma would witness real political opening within the next two years.

But--surprise--the regime once again shut down. Hard-liners, likely scared by the vast crowds Suu Kyi was attracting, returned to the strategy they knew best. In May 2003, thugs suspected of links to the regime attacked Suu Kyi’s motorcade on a rural road, killing at least 70 people; again, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. The junta began slapping restrictions on foreign aid organizations, or forcing them out of the country altogether. Frustrated, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, one of the most prominent international health organizations, simply pulled out of Burma in 2005. Even Khin Nyunt could not escape the crackdown: Regime hard-liners jailed hundreds of his associates and placed the general himself under house arrest.

Today, the junta again has reasons for appearing to open up to the world. This time, the regime seems desperate to gain leverage over China, its main foreign ally and investor, by obtaining more independence from Beijing. “They want to be closer to the U.S. because they don’t want to be reliant on us,” says one Chinese diplomat.

Twice-burned, those who know Burma aren’t buying its current act. “The junta will be anxious to give the appearance of responding to the U.S. outreach, while hoping to avoid any real commitments,” says Sean Turnell, who runs Burma Economic Watch, probably the most authoritative publication on the country. “I think the [junta] … is simply testing out what they might perceive as an administration they might be able to fool.”

Indeed, no serious Burma specialist believes the 2010 national elections planned by the junta will be much more than a sham. Similarly, even as the junta has cozied up to the United States, it has unleashed its forces against ethnic-minority militias. In August, thousands of Kokang, a minority group, fled into China, but not before the military killed at least 200, including many civilians, according to the Kokang.

To be sure, a decade of sanctions and isolation neither brought down the military regime nor fostered real economic reform inside the country. Yet engaging with the junta has dangers as well. It can undermine dissidents and human rights activists, now unsure whether Washington will stand behind them. Experts also believe that financial aid sent to Burma for starving populations is likely to be siphoned off by the regime. Finally, engaging with a brutal regime could make it harder to get any international consensus on sanctions again.

The White House, however, seems ready to be burned a third time. And what happens when Burma’s regime reverts to form? “If you ask them [the administration’s Burma policymakers], ‘What are you going to do if the regime doesn’t respond?,’ they don’t seem to have an idea,” says one prominent D.C.-based Burma activist who consults closely with the State Department. “So what will they do when the junta doesn’t change?”

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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