Burma’s Continuing Agony

June 19, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Huffington Post on June 19, 2010.

Nobel laureate and Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi turned 65 today. She has spent 15 of the last 21 years in prison or under house arrest. There is no end to her, or her nation’s, agony in sight.

Burma, renamed Myanmar by the junta, won its independence after World War II. But popular independence leader Gen. Aung San — Suu Kyi’s father — was assassinated and the new government failed to provide political autonomy to Burma’s many ethnic groups, triggering a war which continues to this day.

The military seized power in 1962. Since then only the names of the men wearing the stars have changed. Democracy protests broke out in August 1988 and were put down with massive force; between 3,000 and 6,000 demonstrators were killed. The junta then called a relatively free election in 1990, which Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won in a landslide. The military voided the results and launched a political war against the NLD, jailing Suu Kyi and many of her followers. Periodic protests, such as in Rangoon in 2007, were suppressed brutally.

The paranoia and indifference of the regime, which styles itself the State Peace and Development Council, were both on display a year later when the military obstructed aid efforts in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country. It is impossible to know how many people died unnecessarily because the regime feared Western assistance might undermine its authority.

After decades of war the regime reached ceasefires with several ethnic groups, but now the SPDC is pushing to forcibly disarm the ethnic militaries without providing the groups with meaningful political guarantees. Zipporah Sein, General Secretary of the Karen National Union, warns of the “greatest possibility of renewed conflict.”

Perhaps even more worrisome, in recent months there have been an increasing number of claims that the SPDC is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. The regime naturally has denied the charge and Burma is, superficially at least, an implausible nuclear weapons state since it lacks serious conventional enemies.

Even many of the regime’s critics remain skeptical. In January the Institute for Science and International Security concluded: “Despite the public reports to the contrary, the military junta does not appear to be close to establishing a significant nuclear capability. Information suggesting the construction of major nuclear facilities appears unreliable or inconclusive.”

Still, the regime fears outside military intervention and has forged a close relationship with North Korea. Moreover, an army major recently defected, bringing along incriminating evidence. Robert Kelley, a former nuclear scientist and arms inspector, believes the SPDC has a real but primitive program underway. The regime may at least be looking at a nuclear option.

Burma’s record is execrable. The group Freedom House recently ranked Burma at the bottom among the nine worst nations: the regime “suppresses nearly all basic rights, and commits human rights abuses with impunity.” Moreover, “the SPDC does not tolerate dissent and has a long history of imprisoning anyone who is critical of the government.” The State Department reports that “government security forces allowed custodial deaths to occur and committed extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rape, and torture.” Burma’s violations of religious liberty caused the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to cite Burma as a “country of particular concern.”

With this record, the SPDC is hoping to win greater legitimacy by transforming itself into a nominally civilian government through strictly controlled elections later this year. Then the military will wield power behind a civilian façade.

The junta wrote a new constitution that ensures military control of future governments and election rules which guarantee seats to military officers and favor its allies. For instance, those with foreign spouses (Suu Kyi’s late husband was British) or imprisoned (some 2200 NLD activists are currently detained along with Suu Kyi) are barred from running for office or even belonging to a registered political party. As a result, the NLD disbanded after deciding that it could not contest the election under these circumstances.

Moreover, the regime has begun privatizing state enterprises — normally a positive step, but not when done at favorable terms for junta relatives, friends, and cronies. Observed David Scott Mathieson of Human Rights Watch: “the military’s interests will continue to be safeguarded without civilian oversight, and free from the drudgery of everyday governance.”

Some observers hope for gradual democratic evolution. For instance, the International Crisis Group points to “the best opportunity in a generation to influence the future direction of the country.” For this reason a few NLD activists formed a new party to run.

However, even if the electoral count is fair and they win a number of seats, they are likely to be only window dressing for a system which will remain as repressive as ever. The military is making extraordinary efforts to preserve its control. Mathieson called the new system an “authoritarian upgrade.”

The West is left with no good choices. Suu Kyi wrote to those outside of Burma: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”


The U.S. and Europeans already have tried economic sanctions. But with China, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia all ready to do business with Burma, Western policy has caused little more than an inconvenience. In fact, those linked to the regime have used state government economic controls to their advantage. A study by Lex Rieffel for the U.S. Institute for Peace reported: “The banking system is dominated by state‐​owned banks that lend primarily to relatives and cronies of regime leaders as well as state‐​owned enterprises.”

The Obama administration has sought a more realistic policy of limited engagement. With Washington’s blessing Sen. Jim Webb (D‐​Va.) visited Burma last year. However, he recently put off a planned trip because of the latest nuclear allegations, explaining: “Until there is further clarification on these matters, I believe it would be unwise and potentially counterproductive for me to visit Burma.”

Yet the possibility that the SPDC is seeking a nuclear weapon, even in a somewhat haphazard and unserious way, is another argument for Western engagement. As the Institute for Science and International Security explained: “Because Burma’s known program is so small, the United States and its allies have an opportunity to both engage and pressure the military regime in a manner that would make it extremely difficult for Burma to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, let alone nuclear weapons.”

Since current policy isn’t working, the U.S. should cooperate with European and interested Asian nations to develop a package of economic and diplomatic benefits should the Burmese junta improve human rights, take genuine steps towards greater democracy, and open Burmese society. No one should be under any illusions about the likelihood of dramatic reform: the SPDC is not going to surrender power irrespective of the inducements offered. Nevertheless, the regime might decide that the benefits offered for more limited reform, including relaxation of Western sanctions, are worth the risk of change. Such negotiations also might ease the regime’s paranoia about potential Western threats of regime change.

Offering some hope is the experience of NGOs after Cyclone Nargis. Although the regime’s initial response was criminally callous, officials eventually became more cooperative. The International Crisis Group concluded that “it is possible to work with the military regime on humanitarian issues” and that the junta was even “allowing a substantial role for civil society.” Frank Smithuis of Doctors Without Borders told the New York Times: “the military at times has actually been quite helpful to us.”

While offering some carrots, the Western nations should seek a thicker stick by intensifying targeted financial sanctions against junta leaders and business partners. The U.S. and likeminded states also should encourage India, Japan, South Korea, and the ASEAN states to apply coordinated diplomatic and economic pressure on the SPDC, with targeted sanctions to follow if the regime remains unresponsive. The possibility of a Burmese nuke should cause even ASEAN members to consider making an exception to their traditional policy of nonintervention in the affairs of other nations.

Finally, Washington should use the prospect of a nuclear crisis in Southeast as well as Northeast Asia to enlist China, India, and Russia into taking a more active role. None are likely to worry much about the status of human rights or democracy in Burma. All should be unsettled by the consequences of a serious Burmese effort to develop nuclear weapons. The SPDC already angered China with a military offensive which drove refugees across its border. Does Beijing want two paranoid, isolated, and unpredictable nuclear weapons states as neighbors?

The U.S. should also pledge to all three of these major powers, and especially to China, that Washington would not take military advantage of any liberalization in Burma. The U.S. would pursue no alliance, bases, deployments, or even training missions if these governments helped transform the SPDC into something else.

Such a new strategy towards Burma might achieve nothing, of course. Indeed, there is little in the history of dealing with the junta to give reason for optimism. But Washington’s current policies have failed and Washington’s alternatives are limited.

Aung San Suu Kyi is spending another birthday in confinement. She haunts us with her plea to help her people win liberty. So far that has remained outside of Washington’s capability. But Americans should not stop trying to assist. Burma remains one of the world’s great tragedies of tyranny.

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