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.

Suu Kyi was released in the wake of Burma’s early November elections, which solidified the rule of the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party. The international community rightly dismissed the elections as fraudulent. The election stuffed the legislature with former military men who had swapped their uniforms for suits. Burma’s constitution -- passed overwhelmingly in a referendum staged by the junta in 2009, while of the country dealt with severe flooding -- locks in a controlling share of the seats in the legislature for the military or their proxies and authorizes the generals still in the military command structure to declare martial law again at their own discretion. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, was disbanded pursuant to a new election law before the elections, and the ethnic minorities who refused to bow to the new law’s restrictions have come under renewed military assaults, causing thousands to flee into Bangladesh, China, and Thailand. The junta justifies its repressive measures against the democratic opposition as necessary to hold together the country’s fractured ethnic groups.

Some optimists have argued that Burmese politics might be moving, however gradually, in the right direction. Countries such as Indonesia and South Korea, they point out, began their own transitions to full democracy after their previously authoritarian regimes conducted less than perfect elections. By comparison, then, the release of Suu Kyi would be the junta’s signal to the world that it is willing to open more political space for different viewpoints within the country, albeit slowly.

But at this time, neither the Indonesian nor South Korean scenario is likely. The military leaders of Indonesia and South Korea actually intended to transform their countries into democracies, not reconsolidate their own rule. Civil society was allowed to mobilize in both countries, and the major opposition parties were not forced to disband by new election laws. Burma’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and his generals have no intention of following the Indonesian or South Korean model. It was no coincidence that North Koreans led the election monitoring in Burma on November 7.

Nor did Than Shwe free Suu Kyi to reconcile with the democratic opposition. The junta has released her before, only to re-arrest her or turn its thugs on her, as in 1996 and 2003, when political supporters of the regime attacked her motorcade. In negotiations prior to Burma’s elections this month, the Obama administration offered to relax sanctions in exchange for modest steps toward reconciliation with the opposition and ethnic minorities. U.S. negotiators came away with nothing. And despite Suu Kyi’s release, more than 2,000 other political prisoners continue to languish in prison.

These are not the actions of a regime interested in reconciliation with the democratic opposition. More likely, Than Shwe freed Suu Kyi to stave off a growing tide of international scrutiny related to his regime’s forged election results and suspected nuclear ambitions. The junta’s interest in nuclear weapons was revealed by defectors and internal sources in Burma, and nuclear experts validated their concern in a report to the UN Security Council this year (evidence to date points to Burma’s pursuit of capabilities from North Korea but not yet a major program). The regime probably also worries about movement at the United Nations for a commission of inquiry into its internal repression, particularly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for such a commission while traveling in the region earlier this month. By releasing Suu Kyi with unclear conditions and duration, the regime encourages supporters in the West to argue that the international community should be patient with Burma’s apparent progress rather than levy new sanctions on the junta. Meanwhile, Burma’s neighbors, China and India, continue to vie for strategic access to Burma’s natural resources (especially natural gas) -- a rivalry that has undermined U.S.-led efforts to press for Burmese democratic reform.

The situation in Burma thus seems worse than it did when Derek Mitchell and I called on Washington to adopt a new approach to the country that would engage Burma and foster the formation of an international negotiation group composed of Burma’s neighbors, similar to the six-party talks set up to coordinate negotiations with North Korea. This group would create a package of incentives to reward reform and sanctions to punish continued repression and the pursuit of nuclear technology. We suggested that the Obama administration appoint a coordinator for Burma affairs to manage this group and help it establish benchmarks for measuring the regime’s behavior.

Although little of this has materialized, the Obama administration has tried to adopt some of these tracks. It intensified engagement with Burma based on a specific set of actions that the junta would need to follow in exchange for the relaxation of U.S.-specific sanctions and began the process by warning that U.S. sanctions might be increased if the regime were not forthcoming. The administration also sent envoys to explain its approach to Burma’s neighbors. Yet these disparate parts did not add up to a consistent or comprehensive strategy. The United States did not unite nations surrounding Burma in a negotiating coalition, nor did it successfully rally the international community to step in and pressure the junta should it undermine negotiations. The administration never appointed a Burma coordinator, despite the fact that the U.S. Congress passed legislation mandating the position. (I was nominated for the post at the end of the Bush administration, but it remains unfilled.) Finally, the Obama administration has not lived up to its promise of ramping up sanctions in the wake of Burmese intransigence. Although Obama’s direct diplomacy with the regime was skillful, it would have been bolstered by these other elements of a comprehensive strategic approach to the problem.

Nevertheless, opportunities to pressure Burma’s military leaders remain open. First, the junta may be mistaken in thinking that it could control the impact of Suu Kyi’s release. It has consistently underestimated her. In 1990, for instance, it permitted the National League for Democracy to participate in elections and watched as the party won a landslide victory (albeit quickly dismissed by the military). Since her release, Suu Kyi has carefully calibrated her public comments -- suggesting that efforts by the regime to engage her supporters could lead to the relaxation of international sanctions, but also standing by the principle that Burma must move toward real democracy. In so doing, she has seized the moral high ground both internationally and within Burma. The regime has not yet figured out how to suppress the hope that she engenders in the Burmese people.

Second, in its paranoid search for security, the regime may have made a drastic miscalculation. The United States may have difficulty organizing countries to sustain a campaign for democratic change in Burma, but Burma’s partnership with North Korea in its quest for nuclear technology will surely attract international attention. In March 2003, North Korean officials warned a George W. Bush administration delegation, of which I was a member, that they would transfer nuclear capabilities to other countries if there were not sufficient U.S. concessions (such as ending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea, withdrawing troops from Northeast Asia, providing economic aid, and recognizing Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state). In September 2007, the Israeli air force bombed a reactor construction site in Syria that the CIA later said had been built with North Korean assistance. The North Korean nuclear connection to Burma has attracted the notice of credible proliferation experts reporting to the UN Security Council.

Than Shwe’s search for security from his own people may not have aroused sufficient international concern, but his pursuit of the bomb will. There is not yet clear evidence of any nuclear program or capability, but the evidence of intent is growing. If this newest crisis erupts as many expect, the United States will need to do a better job formulating a strategy that combines direct engagement with pressure and international diplomatic coordination. And in the midst of this storm will stand Suu Kyi, a courageous women backed by her countrymen and thousands more still under arrest. On her shoulders much of the hope for the people of Burma continues to rest.

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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. He served on the staff of the National Security Council from 2001–5.
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