U.S. policy toward Burma is stuck. Since September 1988, the country has been run by a corrupt and repressive military junta (which renamed the country Myanmar). Soon after taking power, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the junta was then called, placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party the National League for Democracy, under house arrest. In 1990, it allowed national elections but then ignored the National League for Democracy's landslide victory and clung to power. Then, in the mid-1990s, amid a cresting wave of post-Cold War democratization and in response to international pressure, the SLORC released Suu Kyi. At the time, there was a sense within the country and abroad that change in Burma might be possible.

But this proved to be a false promise, and the international community could not agree on what to do next. Many Western governments, legislatures, and human rights organizations advocated applying pressure through diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions. Burma's neighbors, on the other hand, adopted a form of constructive engagement in the hope of enticing the SLORC to reform. The result was an uncoordinated array of often contradictory approaches. The United States limited its diplomatic contact with the SLORC and eventually imposed mandatory trade and investment restrictions on the regime. Europe became a vocal advocate for political reform. But most Asian states moved to expand trade, aid, and diplomatic engagement with the junta, most notably by granting Burma full membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.

A decade later, the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed the former Nigerian diplomat and UN official Ibrahim Gambari to continue the organization's heretofore fruitless dialogue with the junta about reform. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress have fought over control of U.S. Burma policy, leading to bitterness and polarization on both sides. Although the UN Security Council now does talk openly about Burma as a threat to international peace and security, China and Russia have vetoed attempts to impose international sanctions. And while key members of the international community continue to undermine one another, the junta, which renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, continues its brutal and dangerous rule.

Regimes like the SPDC do not improve with age; therefore, the Burma problem must be addressed urgently. All parties with a stake in its resolution need to adjust their positions and start coordinating their approach to the problem. Although this may seem like an unlikely proposition, it has more potential today than ever before. Burma's neighbors are beginning to recognize that unconditional engagement has failed. All that is needed now is for the United States to acknowledge that merely reinforcing its strategy of isolation and the existing sanctions regime will not achieve the desired results either. Such a reappraisal would then allow all concerned parties to build an international consensus with the dual aim of creating new incentives for the SPDC to reform and increasing the price it will pay if it fails to change its ways.


After General Than Shwe became chair of the junta in 1992, repression grew more brazen. Thousands of democracy activists and ordinary citizens have been sent to prison, and Suu Kyi has been repeatedly confined to house arrest, where she remains today. Since 1996, when the Burmese army launched its "four cuts" strategy against armed rebels -- an effort to cut off their access to food, funds, intelligence, and recruits among the population -- 2,500 villages have been destroyed and over one million people, mostly Karen and Shan minorities, have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands live in hiding or in open exile in Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand, and Malaysia. In 2004, the reformist prime minister Khin Nyunt was arrested. Two years ago, Than Shwe even moved the seat of government from Rangoon (which the junta calls Yangon), the traditional capital, to Pyinmana, a small logging town some 250 miles north -- reportedly on the advice of a soothsayer and for fear of possible U.S. air raids. And this past summer, the government cracked down brutally on scores of Burmese citizens who had taken to the streets to protest state-ordered hikes in fuel prices.

Burma's neighbors are struggling to respond to the spillover effects of worsening living conditions in the country. The narcotics trade, human trafficking, and HIV/AIDS are all spreading through Southeast Asia thanks in part to Burmese drug traffickers who regularly distribute heroin with HIV-tainted needles in China, India, and Thailand. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Burma accounts for 80 percent of all heroin produced in Southeast Asia, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has drawn a direct connection between the drug routes running from Burma and the marked increase in HIV/AIDS in the border regions of neighboring countries. Perversely, the SPDC has been playing on its neighbors' concerns over the drugs, disease, and instability that Burma generates to blackmail them into providing it with political, economic, and even military assistance.

Worse, the SPDC appears to have been taking an even more threatening turn recently. Western intelligence officials have suspected for several years that the regime has had an interest in following the model of North Korea and achieving military autarky by developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Last spring, the junta normalized relations and initiated conventional weapons trade with North Korea in violation of UN sanctions against Pyongyang. And despite Burma's ample reserves of oil and gas, it signed an agreement with Russia to develop what it says will be peaceful nuclear capabilities. For these reasons, despite urgent problems elsewhere in the world, all responsible members of the international community should be concerned about the course Burma is taking.


ASEAN may be the most important component of any international Burma policy. The organization invited Burma to join it in 1997 partly on the theory that integration would enhance ASEAN's influence over the junta more than would isolation (and partly out of concern over China's growing influence in the country). More recently, however, the ten-member organization has come to recognize that Burma is not only a stain on its international reputation but also a drain on its diplomatic resources and a threat to peace and stability in Asia. In 2005, ASEAN members began to pressure the SPDC to give up its turn to take over the group's rotating leadership, which was scheduled for 2007; they breathed a collective sigh of relief when Than Shwe allowed the Philippines to take Burma's spot. But particularly after Than Shwe's bizarre decision to move the capital and his rebuff of all international efforts, including by the Malaysian foreign minister, to persuade him to improve the junta's behavior, ASEAN states have only grown more concerned about Burma's direction.

Political liberalization in Indonesia and growing activism in Malaysia and the Philippines have also led ASEAN to redefine its mandate and apply greater pressure for change in Burma. When ASEAN was created four decades ago, its five founding states undertook not to interfere in each other's internal affairs as a way both to distance themselves from their colonial pasts and to avoid conflict in the future. But last January, ASEAN members prepared a new charter for the twenty-first century that champions democracy promotion and human rights as universal values, and they have established a human rights commission despite the SPDC's strong objections. With ASEAN's underlying principles under revision, leadership by Southeast Asian nations will become an even more essential component of any new international approach to the junta.

Japan will be another important force for reform. Tokyo and Washington perennially disagreed over their policies toward Burma in the 1980s and 1990s, but there has been a promising shift in Japan's attitude recently. Now that Tokyo has to contend with the slowdown in Japan's economic power and the rise in China's, it is articulating its foreign policy objectives and diplomacy in different terms. In November 2006, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso made a speech promoting an "arc of freedom and prosperity" from the Baltics to the Pacific and touting Tokyo's commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. His speech conspicuously omitted any mention of Burma, but there is no question that Japan's Burma policy has been shifting significantly. In September 2006, Tokyo finally agreed to support a discussion on Burma in the UN Security Council. Members of the Diet have created the Association for the Promotion of Values-Based Diplomacy, which seeks to infuse Japanese foreign policy in Asia with a renewed emphasis on promoting democracy. And last May, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi joined 43 other former heads of state in an open letter calling on the SPDC to unconditionally release Suu Kyi.

Securing Japan's cooperation will be especially important. The Burmese people generally have a positive memory of Japan's assistance in helping the country throw off British colonial rule in the 1940s. Both the junta and the democratic opposition see opportunities for Japanese aid to help rebuild the country (although they disagree on the conditions under which that aid would be welcome). Furthermore, Burma presents a unique opportunity for Japan to demonstrate its bona fides on promoting democracy, protecting human rights, and advancing regional security -- especially at a time when the rhetoric and policies of China, the other Asian giant, continue to focus on outdated mercantilist principles.


If ASEAN and Japan are critical components of any international approach to Burma, China and India could be the greatest obstacles to efforts to induce reform in the country. China has many interests in Burma. Over the past 15 years, it has developed deep political and economic relations with Burma, largely through billions of dollars in trade and investment and more than a billion dollars' worth of weapons sales. It enjoys important military benefits, including access to ports and listening posts, which allow its armed forces to monitor naval and other military activities around the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. To feed its insatiable appetite for energy, it also seeks preferential deals for access to Burma's oil and gas reserves.

Beijing's engagement with the SPDC has been essential to the regime's survival. China has provided it with moral and financial support -- including funds and materiel to pay off Burmese military elites -- thus increasing its leverage at home and abroad. By throwing China's weight behind the SPDC, Beijing has complicated the strategic calculations of those of Burma's neighbors that are concerned about the direction the country is moving in, thus enabling the junta to pursue a classic divide-and-conquer approach.

In its own defense, China continues to assert its fealty to the principle of noninterference. In early 2007, China and Russia cast their first joint veto in the UN Security Council in 35 years to block a measure that would have sanctioned the SPDC. The move was consistent with both states' historical objections to any attempts by the Security Council to sanction a country for human rights violations. It also aligned with Beijing's overall strategic goals of the past few years: to secure the resources, markets, and investment destinations to fuel China's remarkable economic development; to shun risky international moves that might destabilize its neighborhood and distract the Chinese leadership from urgent domestic challenges; and to promote noninterference as an alternative model for international diplomacy -- all interests that will make it difficult to induce China to change its Burma policy.

But China's position could shift, particularly as Beijing considers its longer-term interests. China, like many other states on Burma's border, must be concerned about the effects of its neighbor's tortured development on its own security. In fact, Chinese officials in Beijing and the governor of Yunnan Province, which borders Burma, are reported to have been putting pressure on the SPDC to reform and urgently address drug trafficking and health issues. This quiet shift could track the recent change in Beijing's approach to another wayward neighbor: North Korea. As soon as Beijing realized that being hands-off did not prevent Pyongyang from testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles over its objections -- thus damaging China's reputation and threatening its security -- it agreed to UN Security Council sanctions to try to bring Pyongyang under control. The same could happen with Burma, and all the more readily because it occupies a less strategic position for China than does North Korea (China's northeastern border has historically been an area of strategic vulnerability and competition).

Another possible source of change is growing pressure from ASEAN nations, which have been suspicious of China's dealings with Burma over the last 15 years. Once Beijing comes to recognize that its current approach to Burma undermines its professed desire to be a responsible international actor, it will have good reason to redefine its real interests in Burma. The key will be for the United States and others to prioritize Burma in their diplomatic efforts with China in order to get Beijing to reach this conclusion.

It will also be a challenge getting India on board. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's trumpeting of democratic values, India has actually become more reticent when it comes to Burma in recent years. This is particularly regrettable considering that Congress was one of the Burmese democratic opposition's strongest supporters during much of the 1990s and that Suu Kyi continues to cite Mohandas Gandhi as a model for nonviolent resistance. The change occurred during the past decade, after New Delhi detected that China's political and military influence in Burma was filling the void left by the international community's deliberate isolation of the junta. Like China, India is hungry for natural gas and other resources and is eager to build a road network through Burma that would expand its trade with ASEAN. As a result, it has attempted to match China step for step as an economic and military partner of the SPDC, providing tanks, light artillery, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, and small arms; India is now Burma's fourth-largest trading partner. Singh's government has also fallen for the junta's blackmail over cross-border drug and arms trafficking and has preferred to give it military and economic assistance rather than let Burma become a safe haven for insurgents active in India's troubled northeastern region.

Yet this shortsighted policy is clearly not in India's interests. Persistent repression and turmoil in Burma will continue to threaten India's security along its border. Internal political reform leading to a more open and reconciled Burma would be far more beneficial for India than anything that would result from India's current tactical accommodations. Of course, India is eager to counter Chinese influence and strengthen its linkages to ASEAN through Burma. But its efforts to become more integrated into East Asia would be better served by following the example of like-minded democracies such as Indonesia, which has spearheaded efforts to change ASEAN's positions on democratization and human rights, than by parroting outdated rhetoric advocating noninterference or pursuing pure mercantilism.


Given the differing perspectives and interests of these nations, a new multilateral initiative on Burma cannot be based on a single, uniform approach. Sanctions policies will need to coexist with various forms of engagement, and it will be necessary to coordinate all of these measures toward the common end of encouraging reform, reconciliation, and ultimately the return of democracy. To succeed, the region's major players will need to work together.

Bringing them together will require the United States' leadership. One way to proceed would be for Washington to lead the five key parties -- ASEAN, China, India, Japan, and the United States -- in developing a coordinated international initiative and putting forth a public statement of the principles that underlie their vision for a stable and secure Burma. The five partners should develop a road map with concrete goalposts that lays out both the benefits that the SPDC would enjoy if it pursued true political reform and national reconciliation and the costs it would suffer if it continued to be intransigent. The road map should present the SPDC with an international consensus on how Burma's situation affects international stability and the common principles on which the international community will judge progress in the country. One purpose of such a road map would be to reassure the SPDC of regional support for Burma's territorial integrity and security and demonstrate the five parties' commitment to provide, under the appropriate conditions, the assistance necessary to ensure a better future for the country. This would be an important guarantee given the Burmese military's traditional paranoia.

Clearly, any process of reform and national reconciliation in Burma will have to begin with the immediate release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, including other members of the National League for Democracy and ethnic leaders, and involve their full participation in the institution of democracy. The guidelines for a new constitution that were announced in September, ostensibly as a "road map to democracy," do not come close in this regard. Than Shwe and the SPDC despise Suu Kyi, of course, which is why some U.S. supporters of engagement with Burma argue that it would be imprudent to peg the international community's treatment of the SPDC on the junta's treatment of Suu Kyi. However, her party's success in the 1990 elections and the fact that Burmese society continues to venerate her mean that any legitimate and credible approach to reform in Burma will have to take her perspectives into account.

Potential chinks are also appearing in the SPDC's armor. Than Shwe's erratic behavior, his decision to imprison former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and thousands of Khin Nyunt's military associates, and his efforts to create a Kim Il Sung-like cult of personality are signs of brittleness and division within the junta. If the SPDC were faced with an offer of new economic and political opportunities from other states in the region -- or greater international pressure and isolation should it fail to reform -- some of its members might eventually feel compelled to seek a different course for themselves and their country.

The five parties should not be expected to agree on everything or even on a single, uniform approach to the SPDC. Rather, the objective of such discussions would be to encourage a degree of compromise among the participants and coordination among their respective policies so that they may be channeled toward a common end. The current approach -- with each party pursuing its individual policy with an eye as much toward competing with the others for its own advantage as toward promoting change in Burma -- has clearly played into the junta's hands. It has allowed the Burmese government to avoid united international action while still gaining the resources necessary to hold on to power.

The participation of China and India, currently the SPDC's greatest enablers, will be critical. The United States could begin to influence both nations' thinking by making Burma a higher priority in bilateral dialogues. In discussions with Beijing, Washington could make China's Burma policy another test of its readiness to be a "responsible stakeholder," much as it has already done in regard to Darfur. With New Delhi, Washington could make India's Burma policy an important component of the two governments' evolving strategic dialogue and nascent partnership on international issues, including democracy promotion and regional stability. Even more important, the U.S. government should initiate a new approach with ASEAN, Japan, and actors outside of Asia, such as the European Union, which has had a long-standing interest in political reform in Burma. ASEAN alone does not have the cohesion or the clout to shape China's or India's policy toward Burma. But with help from the United States and others, it could take a leading role in spearheading a new coordinated, multilateral approach that neither Beijing nor New Delhi would be able to ignore. China was reluctant to host the six-party talks on North Korea at first, but it eventually preferred to take on that role rather than leave the job of dealing with Pyongyang's nuclear activities to the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Once a new multilateral approach to Burma begins to take shape, China will not want to be viewed as obstructing progress on an issue of importance to its neighbors.

In order to participate fully and effectively, the U.S. government, for its part, will need to relax its strict prohibition on official high-level contact with the SPDC. This will require close consultation between the White House, the State Department, and Congress; Congress should grant the administration diplomatic flexibility in exchange for appropriate oversight. The president should appoint a special adviser to serve as the coordinator of U.S. policy on Burma and as the United States' lead contact in its international outreach (and eventually as the U.S. envoy to the Burmese regime itself). In the meantime, U.S. sanctions regarding trade and investment should remain in place, both to avoid too sudden a shift in posture and to keep in reserve potential carrots that could later be offered to the SPDC to encourage reform. The United States should also continue to push for UN Security Council action on Burma in order to keep the issue at the top of its agenda with China.

The international community needs to act now to begin a process of concentrated and coordinated engagement for the benefit of the Burmese people and of broader peace and stability in Asia. As with the six-party talks on North Korea, a multilateral approach will require some compromise by all participants. The United States will need to reconsider its restrictions on engaging the SPDC; ASEAN, China, and India will need to reevaluate their historical commitment to noninterference; Japan will need to consider whether its economics-based approach to Burma undermines its new commitment to values-based diplomacy. But all parties have good reasons to make concessions. None of them can afford to watch Burma descend further into isolation and desperation and wait to act until another generation of its people is lost. In addition to humanitarian principles, there are strategic grounds for stepping up diplomatic efforts on Burma: it is now the most serious remaining challenge to the security and unity of Southeast Asia. Of course, change will eventually come to Burma. But without the coordinated engagement of the major interested powers today, that change will come at a great cost: to the stability of Southeast Asia, to the conscience of the international community, and, most important, to the long-suffering Burmese people, who languish in the shadows as the rest of the world concentrates its energies elsewhere.

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  • Michael Green is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Senior Adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Derek Mitchell is a Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Strategy at CSIS.
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