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Op-Ed

Deuces High: How the U.S. Can Bring an End to Myanmar's Crackdown on Democracy

Josh D. Friedman, San Francisco, Calif., November 29, 2007

Relying on regional powers to do the heavy lifting would diminish the image of the United States as a regional power with even a modicum of strategic influence.

Since late September, the world's eyes have been fixed on the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly Burma, and just about every observer in the United States has asked him or herself, "Couldn't the United States do more to pressure Myanmar's junta?" However, Washington's limited diplomatic and economic influence over Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar's capital, has the world superpower wondering if it has any hand to play in this round.

For 45 years, an oppressive military regime has ruled Myanmar, during which time it has suspended constitutional democracy, jailed political dissidents, and forcefully quelled political challenges to its rule.

By some accounts, the authoritarian government of this small Buddhist nation has made promising, albeit limited, strides in recent years in distancing itself from the types of policies that had led to its violent crackdown of peaceful protests for democracy in 1988—an episode that resulted in approximately 3,000 dead and 10,000 more imprisoned. In 1990, the Burmese government held demonstration elections for the first time in 30 years. In 1997, Myanmar hinted a willingness to open up to the world community by acceding to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Most recently, the regime drafted guidelines for a new constitution.

But what erupted on Aug. 19, 2007, abruptly extinguished any sanguine notions that the regime was on the road toward reform. That day, peaceful demonstrations against the military junta began in reaction to a 500 percent overnight hike in government-controlled fuel prices. The military responded with violence. In mid-September, galvanized by the military's brutalization of demonstrators, 100,000 Buddhist monks lent their support to the movement by holding peaceful protests. From there forward, military violence against demonstrators continued to escalate with the regime jailing some 3,000 protesters without formal charges, beating and torturing thousands, and massacring at least 10 others.

Although major violence has largely subsided, the military has continued its nighttime monastery raids and arrests in order to finish off the protest movement, and hundreds of monks have been forced into hiding in their hometowns or into exile in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, some observers predict that rapidly rising inflation in the country could easily trigger another round of protests.

Given the situation's potentially destabilizing effects for Southeast Asia, the international community has proposed numerous though often conflicting and ineffectual policy responses. United States and European Union officials have thus far imposed travel restrictions on junta officials and their family members, frozen their foreign assets, embargoed arms sales, and banned key exports. Japan, Myanmar's largest aid donor, followed a demand for a swift end to the crackdown by slashing aid. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and its human rights expert Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, who recently visited the country, have urged the military regime to use restraint, and many Western member nations have called for imposing United Nations sanctions on Myanmar.

For its part, China's policies of noninterference in others' internal affairs and economic engagement with the regime have led Myanmar's largest arms supplier to oppose any efforts to destabilize the Burmese government. Similarly, although ASEAN recently issued a statement condemning the use of automatic weapons against protesters, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose nation currently holds the ASEAN chairmanship, has also called for constructive engagement with the regime.

Regrettably, as the regime continues its hard-handed suppression of Myanmar's incipient democracy movement, most of these proposed measures will likely fail to hit the junta where it counts.

Because regime members largely maintain their bank accounts in other nations outside of the United States and because virtually no American company currently does business with Myanmar, the strategic ties between the two nations are too limited for stepped-up sanctions to exact any pressure on the regime.

What's more, sanctions against an already isolated regime may end up only further isolating the regime and thus impeding any additional steps toward democratization. As if this weren't enough, pursuing ineffective sanctions to the exclusion of other measures might engender perceptions by the world community that the United States has failed the Burmese people. In other words, a policy aimed at rallying United States leadership in the region could actually backfire by increasing the perceived feebleness of American strategic power in Southeast Asia.

Attempts to impose United Nations resolutions as leverage will also be futile, since China will likely continue to block such efforts. Besides, even a successfully adopted resolution might only be symbolic, due to the United Nations' lack of effective enforcement mechanisms.

Given the possibility that only China, India, and ASEAN hold any diplomatic or economic sway in Yangon, multilateral engagement may be relatively more effective in encouraging the junta to continue democratizing rather than forcing it into a defensive position.

However, this policy is otherwise problematic: Engagement as promoted by China has already engendered criticism as a miscarriage of justice for the Burmese people. American complicity would only further tarnish the image of the United States as being "human rights lite." Plus, relying on regional powers to do the heavy lifting would diminish the image of the United States as a regional power with even a modicum of strategic influence.

Fortunately, Washington still has a few cards that it can play: Its best hand would consist of a carrot-and-stick policy that balances the political pressure sought by Western nations with incentives for democratic reform, as advocated by Asian nations.

By modeling the "stick" side of the policy after the successful United States sanctions against North Korea, which resulted in banks quickly ceasing deals with the country after the threat of losing access to the American banking system, the United States can ensure that the military junta is quickly starved of critical resources.

Of course, to be successful, any move to up the ante must pressure key regional powers, such as China, India, and ASEAN, to cooperate in cutting off lending, aid, investment, and trade to the Burmese government if it continues down its current path. Threatening to terminate preferential trade status or pending trade deals with key nations (for example, with South Korea) or, in the case of China, threatening to boycott the 2008 Olympic Games, would be a surefire way to get the Asian nations on board.

As for the carrot, the United States, along with a unified bloc of regional powers, should promise the Burmese regime economic and political engagement if it takes irreversible steps toward democracy. A firm pledge to mobilize the massive development-aid resources of the United States to help to develop Myanmar, in exchange for the regime's taking equally assured steps toward democratic reform, will hedge against the danger of further isolating the military junta.

Taken as a whole, this tough-love approach will give the United States a strategic edge as a world leader by demonstrating its refusal to tolerate civic irresponsibility by other members of the global community. As an added bonus, an assertive American stance will improve the image of the United States as a human-rights defender—something sorely needed in the wake of the various detainee abuse and rendition scandals. In view of the value of liberty at the core of this nation, it's time for the United States to check and raise the stakes.

Josh D. Friedman is a juris doctor candidate studying international law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, and a master's candidate in international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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