U.S. Must Maintain Pressure on Burma to Bring Democracy


This week saw a marked event in U.S. relations with Burma, officially known as Myanmar. After decades of military rule, political suppression, and “ethnic cleansing,” the regime seems to be accommodating transition towards greater political and economic freedom. In light of these pro-democracy political currents, Hillary Clinton traveled to Burma last week, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the pariah state since 1955. In order to entrench and elaborate reform in Burma — and promote U.S. regional interests — the Obama administration must sustain active engagement with the Burmese military and opposition leadership, spurring equitable development, prioritizing political prisoner release, and protecting ethnic minorities.

Since a military junta seized control of Burma in 1962, Burmese development has been marred by political and armed conflict between the ruling military regime, political dissidents, and ethnic minorities. Last month, however U Thein Sein, Burma’s military ruler, announced that opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi would be permitted to reenter politics. In this vein, the government also responded to popular mobilization opposing Chinese dam construction and released a portion of the country’s political prisoners. While mass atrocities and political repression in Burma have long merited international response, President Barack Obama is right to discern that “flickers of progress” signify an opportune foothold for reform.

While Clinton’s trip entailed critical first steps to spurring democratization and wider economic opportunity in Burma, U.S. policy must aspire to promote long-term, sweeping, and sustainable reforms. Following meetings with Sein and Suu Kyi, Clinton sought to capitalize on this momentum, unveiling U.S. plans to relax economic restrictions on Burma. Clinton claimed that the U.S. will support World Bank and IMF assessment programs, as well as UN development grants for health care and small businesses in Myanmar. The latter represents a critical step towards closing the gap between the Burmese public and elite, but political institutions protecting accountability, transparency, and representation must remain prerequisites for removing large-scale economic sanctions. As long as the military dictatorship remains corrupt and negligent, the vast majority of Burma’s 59 million citizens do not reap the benefits of the country’s natural resources. Concurrent economic and political reforms, especially addressing judicial and banking systems, are necessary to meaningfully impact the life prospects of Burmese citizens.

At the same time, the U.S. must push for the release of all political prisoners, incentivizing the regime to relinquish extreme laws that undercut human rights and political participation. Thousands of political prisoners have yet to receive amnesty, embodying untapped potential for change. They are necessary countervailing forces that mitigate military dictatorship. More holistically, sustained international pressure is critical to ushering in meaningful change of the draconian legal system, creating new spaces for free speech, more vital media, and ultimately, grassroots political mobilization.

Beyond political and economic development issues, the Burmese sociopolitical fabric remains blighted by ethnic violence. Executions, violence, systematic rape, crop destruction, forced labor, and relocation campaigns targeting Karen civilians have long comprised the military regime’s “Burmanization” initiative. As a result of ethnic conflict, approximately 530,000 refugees have been internally displaced and at least one million have fled to neighboring countries. Fallout from such violence is not a matter of history: In fact, more people have been displaced this year than any other in the past decade. A representative peace-building process will bring all stakeholders and minorities to the table, framing a meaningful foundation for reconciliation.

Aside from normative impulses to promote human rights, the U.S. must recognize Burma as a strategic foreign policy priority. In his recent tour of Southeast Asia, President Obama articulated a renewed commitment to Asia-Pacific engagement as a check on growing Chinese influence. Burma, the second largest country in Southeast Asia and neighbor to India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos, must figure substantively into this agenda. Burma’s critical geostrategic position between China and the Indian Ocean, as well as the region’s rich natural resources, the U.S. has vested interest in promoting a strong Burmese state. To this end, U.S. must apply diplomatic pressure to promote economic reform, political liberalization, and reconciliation of ethnic minorities.

While Clinton’s historic visit to Burma serves as a powerful symbol of Burma’s potential to democratize, Burma has by no means realized this potential. U.S. foreign policy must continue to spotlight and incentivize economic and political reforms. Strong international pressure is necessary to end human rights abuses and spur lasting change in Burma.

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