Burma: One Step Forward or One Step Back?

Burmese democratic dissident Aung San Suu Kyi attending BAYDA Institute

Despite its status as one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, Burma is rarely acknowledged or even noticed by the international community.  Pressed between China and India and boasting sizeable reserves of gold, rubies, teak, rice and beaches among other things, the country has the potential to become a key regional power.  Its abundance of resources should allow Burma’s GDP to exceed that of comparable neighbors in Southeast Asia, and with an incredibly hardworking populace, Burma could be as industrialized as South Korea or Japan.  Sadly, these claims are not true – so why is Burma one of the most indigent nations in the world, ranking 149th on the Human Development Index?

One possible answer is greed.  Anyone who gains control of the raw materials is guaranteed immense wealth, no matter the means he uses to come to power.  As a result, Burma’s history is filled with military juntas and dictatorships promising equality and freedom, yet secretly massacring ethnic minorities in the country’s resource-rich jungles for the sole purpose of enriching themselves.  However, recently the government has made limited reforms in an attempt to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, especially the United States.

The Burmese government has made rapid and surprising changes to the political climate.  For one, the junta gave up their unchecked power in 2010 and spearheaded the first elections since 1990, where civilian representatives ran for and won seats in the House of Representatives.  Although only 65 out of the 330 seats were won by civilians who were not in the military junta’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), this move towards democracy marked a turning point in the government’s aims.  Rather than continuing a policy of secretive, authoritative dictatorship, the regime now looks towards appearing more democratic to win favor with the West.

Since these elections, the new president Thein Sein, a former military junta official, has initiated a host of reforms that are more in line with “the will of the Burmese people.”  He has halted the Myitstone Dam – a dam project by the China Power Investment Corporation that would have displaced thousands of Kachin peoples in Northern Burma, registered the National League for Democracy (NLD), lifted many restrictions on recently released dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, signed the first ever cease-fire agreement with the Karen National Union (KNU) that ended one of the longest running civil wars in the world, established a cease-fire with the Shan State Army South, released 651 political prisoners, and planned new elections on April 1, all within the past month.  Given that these instrumental changes have occurred in such a short time frame, what is the international community’s role is in facilitating these reforms while also ensuring that the government does not disregard their current progress?

Over the past few weeks, the United States has met “action with action.”  Following the U.S.’ dual track policy, which imposes rigorous sanctions on Burma due to their dismal human rights record, while remaining open to public dialogue and cooperation in exchange for government compliance, President Obama has agreed to take the first steps toward normalizing relations between the two countries.

To start this process, Hillary Clinton made the first visit of any U.S. Secretary of State in 50 years to Burma just two months ago.  After Burma’s more recent reforms, President Obama has decided to select a U.S. Ambassador to serve in the country for the first time in 20 years and invited Burma to do the same in the United States. These steps illustrate the U.S.’ commitment to rewarding countries that make serious commitments to reforms through initial open dialogue.  Other countries have followed the U.S.’ lead, with Britain sending its foreign secretary, William Hague, and France sending its foreign minister, Alain Juppé, to Burma as well.  At such an instrumental time in diplomatic relations with the long isolated country of Burma, the U.S. believes that it needs to continue to monitor the situation before any more substantial moves can be made. This policy seems prudent given the current unrest in Burma’s resource-rich north.

Last week, new rounds of fighting broke out between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Burma’s northern ethnic minority groups, and the Burmese government.  After the KIA detained two Burmese soldiers who entered its semiautonomous region in June 2011, the Burmese government responded by ending a 17-year cease-fire agreement and engaging in their age-old practices of planting land mines, firing mortar rounds, torturing civilians, and raping women even after the two soldiers were returned unharmed.  This renewed fighting has tested the country’s reforms and progress, especially coming directly after Thein Sein’s recent diplomatic successes in terms of reengaging with the West.

When asked about the U.S.’ response to the current ethnic conflicts in the country, one State Department representative commented, “The United States remains concerned about violence in Burma’s ethnic minority areas and has consistently called for an immediate halt to hostilities.  We urge the Burmese government to build on initial discussions with an inclusive dialogue process leading to concrete actions toward genuine national reconciliation.”  In short, the U.S. government is wary to make drastic attempts to lift sanctions and trade embargos if each of Burma’s steps forward is met with a step backward.

The question now becomes how the international community will move forward, knowing that serious problems still threaten Burma’s path towards democracy.  Given that most of the country consists of “black zones” where foreigners are not allowed to travel, it remains unclear how close the country is to solving its various ethnic conflicts.  Cease-fires with two of the more prominent ethnic groups indicate progress in the right direction, yet increased conflict in the North puts Burma further away from its apparent goal.  Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are allowed to run in the upcoming election in April, but there are only 48 seats available, which could limit her influence in government if elected given the ex-military junta majority already in place.

The international consensus seems to be to create a stable, conflict-free Burma that will promote democracy and the free market.  However, China previously held a trading monopoly with the country, given its disregard for the international community’s sanctions.  With Burma standing up to Chinese companies, as was the case with the Myitstone Dam, how hard will China fight for a democratic Burma?  In addition to the continuing human rights abuses in the North and other areas around the country, the U.S. is also concerned about a possible military alliance with North Korea.

The same State Department representative remarked, “The United States will continue to work with the Burmese Government to encourage further reform and reconciliation efforts including taking further steps to end violence in ethnic minority areas, ensuring free and fair by-elections, making sure that all remaining political detainees are released unconditionally, and severing military ties with North Korea.”  The U.S. sees Burma’s reforms as a commendable start to a more democratic form of government, but it needs to see more concrete, sustainable changes to actively remove sanctions and establish completely normal relations.

The U.S.’s position is sensible given the instability of Burma’s internal governmental structure.  Unlike our system of government, in which the president is also the commander of the armed forces, the Burmese system places the army one grade higher than the president.  General Min Aung Hlaing is the commander of the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar armed forces, and has the authority to carry out his own orders.  Essentially, the rulings under Thein Sein and the civilian government do not necessarily affect the military’s decisions.

As a result, one major obstacle in transitioning completely to a democracy would be to decrease the influence of the military on policy so that Thein Sein’s reforms, especially in creating cease-fires with ethnic minorities, can take hold.  A premature lifting of sanctions by the U.S. could be catastrophic for the country because foreign companies would be allowed to exploit the areas where ethnic minorities reside thereby causing internal strife that a disjointed and weak democracy would be unable to control.

The road ahead is unclear, but Burma has made an important start in reengaging with the international community and embracing pro-democratic movements within its country.  The ethnic conflicts, political prisoners, and questions about military alliances with North Korea remain obstacles to achieving complete reforms, but the country seems to be trying to alleviate these complications one step at a time.

All that the international community can do now is keep its focus on the resource-rich country, watch for new developments, and hopefully restore full diplomatic relations with Burma when the country has proven that democracy is there to stay.


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