President Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia will take him to Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. Relations with Thailand and Cambodia are relatively static, thanks to the former’s historic alliance with the U.S. and despite the latter’s terrible human rights record. Burma, on the other hand, is in the midst of change, with the beginnings of a potential transition to democracy.
By visiting Burma now, Obama will be spending valuable political capital even before Burma has taken vital steps – including settling internal ethnic issues and addressing constitutional provisions that give the military inordinate power. Not only has Burma failed to release all political prisoners unconditionally, it appears to be engaging in a kind of shell game. None of the 452 detainees released on November 15, just in time for Obama’s visit, are political prisoners, according to an advocacy group. Yesterday, Samantha Power of the National Security Council told reporters that the administration believed “at least several hundred political prisoners” remained behind bars.
The developments in Burma, such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and her election to the parliament with a small contingent from her political party, the National League for Democracy, that have come after decades of repression and isolation imposed by the regime create a misleading sense of progress. For all of the dramatic changes inside Burma, the end of pre-publication press censorship, for example, “Burma remains a military dictatorship,” as Min Zin and Brian Joseph warned in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy. Many people inside Burma remain unaffected by the changes so far or wary about them being rolled back.
Under the best-case scenario, Burmese people won’t be able to vote in free and fair national elections until 2015. Until then, Suu Kyi and others have advised the U.S. to proceed. In particular, Suu Kyi favored the administration’s early approach to sanctions, easing them on sectors like agriculture and tourism, which could provide the most benefit to ordinary Burmese, and keep them on industries dominated by Burma’s infamously corrupt and brutal military. After only a few months, the administration abandoned this approach last summer, allowing American investment in Burma’s energy sector. Reportedly, she also initially opposed the president’s visit.
The administration, however, is eager to move quickly toward rapprochement with Burma’s military. But as recently as 2010, the U.S. endorsed a commission of inquiry into Burma’s human rights abuses, which include child conscription, rape, forced labor, and torture by the military. The military is also heavily involved in Burma’s economy, and the U.S. forbids American businesses from dealing with those on a list maintained by the treasury. Yet on September 25, a Hewlett Packard representative asked Kurt Campbell, the administration’s top Asia official how American business should “get around” the U.S. Treasury’s list of Burmese with whom Americans are barred from doing business. Campbell answered that the list “has to reflect the new realities inside the country and not inhibit the kind of—the kind of investments in reform that we want to see take place.”
Burma’s desire to balance Beijing’s influence with ties to the U.S., Japan, and Europe gives the democracies the opportunity to push for accountability, transparency, and reforms. Washington should be as aggressive at achieving these objectives as it has been at elevating diplomatic ties and suspending sanctions. Washington should insist on a role for Burma’s civilian politicians and rights advocates in transforming Burma’s military, and in vetting participants in U.S. training and assistance programs – although these are, U.S. officials insist, quite a way off. Burma’s leaders surely expect this, and real reformers will welcome it.