Foreign Policy Blogs

Myanmar: Time to untangle Aung San Suu Kyi From Political Reform?

burmesemilitaryIs Aung San Suu Kyi’s star power waning after nearly two decades of political and social isolation under house arrest?  What affect is this having on the countries democracy movement?   These questions are explored in a recent  New York Times article.  There is no way to tell how representative this person is, but…

“I only know her name,” said Ms. Ei Phyu, a slight and shy 20-year-old who says she has no idea what Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi looks like.

Although this might be shocking to Westerns cognizant of human rights issues in Myanmar,  I would imagine that the average person on the street, in most nations, has limited knowledge of even the most political leaders and activists.   For example, how many Americans know who Nancy Pelosi or Gloria Steinem is?  I would think this is especially true in nations where daily survival is not guaranteed; it is not strange that immediate concerns, such as basic sustenance, take precedence over more lofty abstract issues, unless people can draw a direct link to their immediate situation.

Even more important, domestic political winds might be shifting:

Rangoon, and now facing the prospect of five years in prison for breaking the terms of her house arrest, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi is up against a great deal as an agent of democratic change: a young generation that barely knows who she is; government-run media that portray her as a lackey of the West; and an educated elite that is eager for economic development but wary of more political confrontation after two decades of deadlock.

So is Aung San “the movement”, a cult of personality, or is she the leader of a movement  that will carry on without her?  Many prominent Burmese dissidents are already in prison or exile.   If she is “the movement”,  fading popularity could mean she will not even be relevant as a “martyr” and the movement will collapses.

Taking into account the recent posturing of the regime in Naypyitaw,  Aung San will most likely be prosecuted and sent to prison, as the ruling junta has rejected UN offers to moderate a resolution, which prompted tough (but empty) talk from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.  Due to China and Russia, Mr. Ban does not have the backing of a strong resolution from the Security Council to use as leverage.

Many in the Myanmar intelligentsia and the West are starting to rethink the punitive approach of international community (read: wealthy Western nations) have taken toward Myanmar.  Sanctions have been in place for over 20 years and are not seen as having been effective, to the contrary, the regimes hold on the nation may be stronger than in previous years.  Part of the reason is ASEAN, India, and China’s willingness to trade with Myanmar.  Even in the U.S., the Obama Administration is reviewing America’s Myanmar Policy, but the U.S. also has concerns about China‘s growing power in Southeast Asia.

Due to the their faily strong position, the SPDC (junta)has shown little signs of real reforms.  Their latest move has been the development of a pseudo-democracy, under a new constitution, which will partially transfer of power to a civilian government.  Most analyst as nothing but a veneer.  The upcoming elections for the new government  are being boycotted by most pro-democracy groups as a sham; however, the junta has been able to convince many formerly hostile ethnic factions to participate.  They have also integrated these groups militias into the existing military establishment, strengthening their their grip over the nation after decades of civil war.

It seems that outside calls for reform have only further entrenched the ruling government and sparked increased xenophobia in the ruling elite.  It seems that the only way sanctions can work is if they dramatically decrease the SPDC’s cash flow and ability to purchase arms.   Neither is realistic, because  it would take a U.N. Security Council resolution to accomplish that.  ASEAN, although overcoming its history of  “non-interference”, will not go that far and the organization is not unified enough to collectively pressure China on this issue, even if it wanted to.  Myanmar, in turn, uses China as leverage to gain concessions out of it’s other neighbors who also want in on “the action“.  Access to Myanmar’s natural resources and its stability are far more important to these states than human rights concerns.Still, it is likely that  Myanmar’s government would like strong relations with other nations and not just to be a  “vassal state” to China, because this will afford them more room to maneuver.

Some observers, like Thant Myint-U think has West “missed the boat”:

“In that period from 1962 to 1988, the country was almost entirely closed off and they practiced Burmese socialism – a command economy with barely any investment or trade. In the early 90s, a new generation of generals rose to the top. They saw China and Vietnam and put forward new laws for foreign trade and tourism – they said they wanted a million tourists [a year]. “They wanted to remain a military-government, but pro-Western and with a more open, market economy, like Indonesia and Thailand were at the time and South Korean had been…”It was a narrow approach,” he said. “We [the international community] tried to further isolate the country as it was coming out of its own isolations. They built a wall around themselves in the 1960s and 70s, and then we built another wall around that.”

He goes on to criticize the common media narrative of “Aung San Suu Kyi vs the Junta”, which he believes demonstrates a failure to accurately conceptualize the complex issues Myanmar has, which in turn, has led to the ineffective foreign policy of the last two decades.  The plight of 60 million poor ethnically diverse  Burmese citizens and the 60 years of nearly continous violence are all too often overlooked.

He also gives a brief, but excellent,  historical analysis, which maybe instructive to the junta’s worldview.  Like many, Thant Myint-U favor engagement, the type that the United States has undertaken with China and Vietnam.

One thing is certain, at this point the U.S. has no stake in Myanmar, which means little clout with the regime.  If the U.S. does not engage Myanmar, it will have no role in its future development.  At the same time, since America has no major strategic interest in the nation it can also serve as a honest broker and mediator for nations that do have influence in Myanmar, namely the ASEAN states, India, and especially China.  Which way will the U.S. go?  I think limited engagement would be a safe bet, for if nothing else, it might be in America’s strategic interest to make China compete for allies in the region.