"After years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress," said President Barack Obama of Burma, officially known as Myanmar. The government has been under sanction by the U.S., but last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the pariah state in an attempt to spur the reform process.
Burma long has been one of the most tragic of nations. The military first took control in 1962. Since then the regime has brutally suppressed all opposition, including the democracy movement led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even deadlier has been the more than six decades of war against ethnic groups seeking autonomy. Some, most recently the Shan, have reached ceasefires with the regime, but others, such as the Karen, fight on. Violent clashes continued in the week preceding Secretary Clinton's arrival.
The U.S. and Europe have used economic sanctions to punish the military junta, which in the mold of George Orwell's 1984 variously styled itself as the "State Law and Order Restoration Council" and "State Peace and Development Council." But China took advantage of Western policy to gain political influence and economic dominance in Burma, while even America's Asian friends largely ignored U.S. attempts to isolate the government in Naypyidaw.
The overall Burmese economy suffered from sanctions, but the regime's military leaders and business allies prospered, manipulating the rules to their advantage. Meanwhile the government lived up to its brutal reputation. Thousands of democracy activists languished in jail and Suu Kyi was held under perpetual house arrest. The tyrannical status quo remained impervious to allied pressure. There even was evidence that the regime might be pursuing nuclear weapons.
Now there are "flickers of progress," as the president suggested. The first was a very limited election last year, in which leading democracy activists, including Suu Kyi, whose party won the last poll in 1990, were barred from running. A new, nominally civilian government was born after the election with the retirement of the junta's top generals. However, the new system was still dominated by former military men. Little fundamental seemed to have changed.
Since then the government released about 300 political prisoners, while leaving nearly 1700 (which the regime claimed were just common criminals) in custody. Shortly after the election Suu Kyi also was freed. Since then she met with government ministers, including President Thein Sein, and restrictions on her party, the National League for Democracy, have been lifted. The NLD has registered to contest upcoming by-elections and she is likely to enter parliament. Restrictions over the media, internet, and labor unions recently were relaxed.
Naypyidaw also has initiated a slight break with its chief patron, Beijing. Even while allying with the People's Republic of China Burma pursued ties with India and Southeast Asian states. Moreover, top Burmese leaders reportedly are uncomfortable with the PRC's "plundering" of the nation's natural resources, while others talk about Burma becoming a "satellite state." Over the Beijing's sharp protests the regime halted work in September on an unpopular China-backed dam.
Still, Burma was looking for a balance, not a revolution in relations: three days before Secretary Clinton's arrival, the Burmese army commander visited Beijing to meet with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, tapped to become president next year. They talked of enhancing their countries' "comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation."
Individually all of these are but small steps. Much remains unchanged, warns Human Rights Watch: "the main elements of Burma's repressive security apparatus, and the laws underpinning it, remain in place. In ethnic areas, the human rights situation remains dire." Moreover, the Burmese military has previously offered tantalizing reforms, only to reverse course, intensifying its brutal repression. An unnamed State Department official acknowledged "several failed efforts over decades" at engagement.
However, the combination of many modest reforms offers hope that something more is happening this time. Sean Turnell of Australia's Macquarie University said "Most of the change is rhetorical," but still called the steps "potentially transformational." Former student leader Myo Yan Naung Thein said "we don't have enough blood to shed" to overthrow the system, so the new strategy is "If you can't beat them, join them."
Suu Kyi, who so often has been the victim of regime twists and turns, expressed optimism in the potential for additional change. Even more effusive was Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, a former political prisoner, who first "didn't believe a word of what they were saying" but argued "What has happened in these last few months is a miracle for us."
Sending Secretary Clinton to Naypyidaw was a well-calibrated response: opening Washington's door, affirming Burma's apparent reform course, and testing the new government's willingness to do more. The results of her visit look modest, but nevertheless positive. Secretary Clinton met Suu Kyi, who endorsed the U.S. effort. While it is far too early to expect a democratic Burma, it now is possible to at least imagine a Burma where the space for independent political activism is steadily expanding, an important step in the transition to genuinely representative government.
Far-reaching economic reform is required as well. Burma needs help, but the long-term answer will not come from government-to-government aid -- on which Secretary Clinton announced a small loosening of U.S. restrictions. Official "assistance" is more likely to help the regime than the people. Only increased foreign investment and trade will generate the economic growth necessary to permanently improve the lives of the Burmese people.
But attracting the necessary funds will not be easy. Burma's crony-kleptocratic economy currently is organized to enrich the families and friends of those in power. Political connections are far more important than legal protections in promoting investments. Even if the country becomes more democratic, influential elites will resist market openings which reduce their control. Indeed, their desire to preserve profitable privileges likely will generate opposition to democracy itself.
The Obama administration also hopes to reinforce the Burmese government's apparent desire to balance the influence of its imperious neighbor China. Much concern has been expressed in the U.S. about Beijing's growing clout around the world. But the PRC is finding out -- just as Washington discovered years ago -- that friends can be expensive to buy and often don't stay bought.
Engaging Burma may encourage that state to continue on a more independent course. The regime isn't likely to dump its patron -- China is too close geographically and too involved economically. And America's limited interests in Burma do not warrant attempting to turn the latter into another "great game" geopolitically. However, the U.S. could join India as an alternative source of funds and advice. Any distance between Naypyidaw and Beijing would be a positive. And the PRC's churlish reaction to the Clinton initiative suggests that Chinese officials are concerned.
Of course, the Clinton initiative may fail. The minimal changes we see now may be all that the Burmese people get. The whole effort may turn out to be an elaborate fraud, window-dressing to win Western aid, concocted by the military which continues to rule from the shadows. (Burma's ongoing reforms already have helped it win the promise of ASEAN's chairmanship in 2014.) Plenty of dissidents are skeptical, while Freedom House President David J. Kramer worries "that we are moving a little too quickly."
But the main argument for engaging Burma is not that doing so is certain to work, but that the alternative has failed. Isolating Burma has achieved little. For the most part Asian nations, even America's friends, ignored U.S. and European sanctions. For years nothing changed. The regime did not fall; Suu Kyi was not freed; democracy did not come; ethnic groups did not enjoy peace. The generals simply tightened their grip, killing or imprisoning anyone who resisted their rule.
Although the West's policy failure long has been obvious, no one wanted to "reward" the Burmese regime by dropping economic penalties. Sanctions had taken on symbolic as well as practical importance. Which left U.S. policy stuck in a political cul-de-sac. Sanctions were ineffective, doing little to advance human rights. But they could not be changed for appearance's sake.
Nascent reform in Burma now offers Washington an opportunity to shift course. During her visit Secretary Clinton announced relaxation of restrictions on World Bank and International Monetary Fund involvement in Burma, as well as talks with Naypyidaw on upgrading diplomatic relations, which were suspended 22 years ago. But lifting sanctions has to wait "because of our ongoing concerns about policies that have to be reversed," she explained. In fact, much remains to be done. Among the most important issues is ending the regime's brutal war on minority ethnic groups in the east.
Expectations of further change should be realistic. Moreover, even if the regime is genuinely committed to real reform, the road to a better life for the Burmese people will remain long and hard. Creating a liberal democracy and market economy out of a brutal, impoverished autocracy is the most difficult of tasks.
Nevertheless, for the first time in years there truly are "flickers of progress" in Burma. The administration is right to try to turn these flickers into something more. That means looking to the future: Washington needs to encourage any reforming voices in Naypyidaw. The desperately poor and oppressed Burmese people deserve a better life.