President Barack Obama recently nominated Derek Mitchell as the first U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma. The appointment of an envoy to Burma, which was called for in U.S. legislation passed three years ago, is a positive step forward in the U.S.'s evolving policy of engagement toward Burma.
Mr. Mitchell is a smart choice for this new position. He currently is the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian affairs and previously was a foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, so he knows his way around the administration. He also knows Burma and the dynamics of the region well. The latter is especially important as it is clear that in order to improve conditions in Burma, the United States must find ways to a better coordinate its policies with other Asian countries. The post still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but it is expected to pass without opposition.
The timing of Mr. Mitchell's appointment is a clear signal to Burmese leaders that the United States is serious about stepping up engagement. It comes on the heels of the official dissolution of Burma's ruling military junta into a quasi-civilian government. Although top military figures continue to hold on to leadership positions following the deeply flawed elections of November 2010 -- the recent swearing in of retired general Thein Sein as Burma's new president proves that -- it remains unclear to what extent new actors participating in the country's first parliament in over two decades and state legislatures will have room to maneuver.
At this moment of potential change, every effort should be made to ramp up dialogue with all facets of Burmese society and press for desperately needed reforms. Now with an envoy fully dedicated to Burma, the United States will be able to facilitate expanded engagement with a wide range of groups inside the country, including senior government officials, politicians and civil servants in the new ministries, opposition leaders, ethnic groups, as well as representatives from the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. Through expanded outreach, the U.S. should pursue measures designed to assist the process of developing more democratic institutions, both inside and outside government, and to encourage government capacity building.
Engaging Burma's neighbors will also be a key part of the job, especially in light of growing concerns related to Burma's reported nuclear ambitions and its troubling relationship with North Korea, greater instability along the Burmese borders as a result of military efforts to rein in insurgent groups, the continuing export of disease and refugees, and the trafficking of drugs and contraband across its porous borders.
Given that an international consensus has yet to emerge regarding approaches to Burma, the new envoy should focus on engaging China and India -- Burma's key military backers and trading partners -- as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to encourage reforms. Indonesia and other ASEAN countries, which once refused to criticize the internal affairs of its members, have developed both politically and economically to the point that they may have the will to press for change in Burma, a fellow ASEAN member. In particular, the envoy should focus on those ASEAN members that can bring the rest of the group along.
Another important part of the job will be to ensure that U.S. sanctions against Burma are better targeted toward corrupt political actors and their cronies, and not ordinary Burmese citizens. Related to this, the new envoy should lead an assessment of U.S. sanctions policy that takes into consideration the views of ASEAN, the E.U. and other key external and internal players.
At the same time, the envoy should continue to develop means of reaching the Burmese population directly through assistance programs. In the past few years, U.S. humanitarian assistance to Burma has expanded rapidly in response to dire humanitarian needs -- particularly in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Supporting the growth of civil society and community development as well as small holder farmers and small- to medium-sized businesses should be a priority.
To be sure, the changes in Burma so far have been more rhetorical than substantive. It may be years before the real significance of the developments underway becomes apparent. With an envoy in place, the US will be able to act quickly and flexibly to both opportunities and obstacles and take a lead in pushing the new government to move in a positive direction. As a reinforcing step, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should follow Mr. Obama's lead and name a full time U.N. envoy to Burma.