Burma's Stubborn State

How to Curtail the Military Junta

In November 2007, Derek Mitchell and I published an essay in Foreign Affairs (“Asia’s Forgotten Crisis,” November/December 2007) arguing that U.S. policy toward Burma (renamed Myanmar by the country’s military junta) needed to move beyond the debate over whether to place sanctions on the country’s repressive military junta or engage it. We also asserted that Washington must form a comprehensive strategy that leverages regional relationships and uses a mix of incentives to nudge the isolated regime toward democracy.

Three years later, the junta has released the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime inspirational leader of Burma’s democratic opposition who had been under some form of house arrest or detention for the last 14 years. Although the release of Suu Kyi has to be welcomed by her supporters worldwide, it falls far short of objectives set for Burma policy by the Obama administration and others in the international community. They sought not only Suu Kyi’s unconditional and permanent release but also the inclusion of the democratic opposition and ethnic minorities in Burma’s political process, as well as the establishment of international standards and monitoring for the country’s elections on November 7.

None of this happened. Meanwhile, the regime has opened a dangerous new path by partnering with North Korea to explore nuclear capabilities, a potentially explosive issue given recent revelations that Pyongyang has successfully moved forward with its own program for highly enriched uranium. Although freeing Suu Kyi may allow Burma’s leaders to escape scrutiny for now, their budding nuclear ambitions could rejuvenate international interest in placing pressure on their regime.

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