April 12, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Why we should support the U.S policy of Conditional Engagement

The U.S policy of Sanction against Burma: Why we should support the U.S policy of Conditional Engagement

24 October 2010: In line with its democratic beliefs, the United States has unequivocally supported the democratization effort in Burma. Since the people of Burma took to the street twenty two years ago to protest the military dictatorship and to demand the democratic rule, Burma’s democratic movement has received the unyielding support of the United States. Even in a divided US political climate, there have never been partisan divisions over Burma: Burma’s democratic opposition movement always enjoys bi-partisan support in the United States Congress. In order to achieve the United States goals of making a free and democratic Burma, it has adopted sanctions as its policy against the military junta. However, the US policy of sanctions have proven ineffectual towards Burma; sanctions have had rather the adverse effect of pushing the military regime to tighten its grip on power.

Given the failure of sanctions, the key policy debate confronting the Obama administration today is whether they will continue espousing the unilateral sanctions of its predecessors or adopt a new policy of engagement in dealing with the SPDC. Recognizing the ineffectiveness of two decades of unilateral sanctions, I here argue that the Obama administration continuously adopt a new policy of conditional engagement- which I call the middle course – in its approach to supporting Burma’s democratization efforts.

The US policy of the Unilateral Sanctions

In May 1997, the Clinton administration banned a new investment in Burma. Even before the Official imposition of sanctions, many companies investing Burma had already left Burma due to the worsening business climate, coupled with mounting criticisms, and pressure from human rights groups to leave Burma. American energy companies investing in Burma such as Texaco, Unocal, and Arco were among the first foreign companies to invest in SLORC-controlled Burma. The hard-line American foreign policy towards Burma was intensified when President George W. Bush came to Power in 2001, whose support for Burma’s democratic movement was unequivocal. By aligning with the Bush administration policy, the United States Congress enacted the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act (BFDA) in 2003.  Since the promulgation of BFDA in 2003, the United States Congress annually renews the BFDA Act, most recently in 2009.

Undoubtedly, the sanctions that the United States imposed on Burma have affected the Burmese military regime. More than the regime, sanctions also hurt the general public – especially family members of those working at American companies in Burma. However, the experimentation of sanctions against Burma is a nostrum which did not and will not force the SPDC to hand over power to the democratically elected Party or negotiate them. There are three underlying reasons why the unilateral sanctions against SPDC are not effective: one, the unilateral sanctions imposed on the military government have not been matched by China, Japan, Russia, nations of ASEAN countries, and India; two, Burma has been isolated from the world economy for over four decades since the military coup in 1962; and, three, China has been propping up the military regime militarily and economically, underwriting the military regime expenses.

The main failure of US sanctions on Burma is that countries with enormous leverage over Burma- such as nations of ASEAN, China, India, and Japan- do not support sanctions. While many western governments and human rights organizations advocated applying pressure through diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions, Burma’s neighbors, on the other hand, have adopted a form of constructive engagement in the hope of enticing the SPDC to reform.  The result was an uncoordinated array of often contradictory approaches. In fact, not only are U.S. sanctions on Burma limited to the U.S. and its closest allies, which is why sanctions have little more than a minimal impact on the military junta, there is no united front and no UN endorsement, as was in the much-cited South African case. In present circumstances, the chance of building genuinely multilateral sanctions international, indeed, is close to zero.

When western countries take punitive measures like economic sanctions against Burma, and cutting ties to Burma, China has all along been engaging with Burma in a pragmatic manner. To recall a historical fact to understand the full picture of China’s support for the military regime, when Washington barred Burma exports worth of $ 350 million in 2002, China gave Rangoon a $ 200 million loan package in 2003, wrote off much of Burma’s debt, and sold it a range of new military hardware at discounted prices. China’s influence on Burma is enormous, controlling virtually the whole country’s economy. According to Earth Rights International, there are at least 26 multinational corporations involved in more than 62 energy projects in hydropower, oil, mining, and gas projects in Burma. China also signed a $ 2.9 billion agreement with the SPDC to construct a gas-pipe line which would allow China to transport the crude oil from Middle East and Africa to China through Burma, instead of going through the straits of Malacca which would be more time-consuming and expensive.

So far, China imported 80 % of its oil through this straits of Malacca. The fact that China throws its weight behind the military regime has much to do with its policy on US sanctions; China does not espouse sanctions against Burma, holding that sanctions are unhelpful and that the United States should be prepared to move quickly on its new policy of engagement. The US policy of isolation over the past two decades has resulted in China’s growing political and commercial influence in Burma, with little progress supporting those calling for reform. Today, Chinese influence on Burma is dramatically growing, reaching to a point that poses a formidable threat to the national security of India, the largest democracy in the world. Make no mistake, Burma holds a strategic location bordering China and India, creating a niche where both rivals can exert for influence over Burma. In fact, the increasing inroads made into Burma by China make India’s leadership paranoid and uneasy, forcing India to cooperate with the military government at the expense of the democratic movement in Burma.

Moreover, one factor that makes unlikely for ASEAN to change its policy is the group’s traditional adherence to the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other member countries. For example, ASEAN holds that the Burmese government’s treatment of its people is a matter of its own internal affairs and no other countries should interfere with it. One can argue in fact that some member countries of ASEAN altered from the principle of non-intervention to constructive engagement. However, the constructive engagement policy of ASEAN produced no progress in terms of human rights and democratic development in Burma. Recently in 2008, leaders of ASEAN took further step by writing their own Charter, raising high expectations in the realm of human rights and democracy. However, the provision of the Charter excludes ‘a disciplinary clause’ whereby punitive measures can be taken against a non-complying member country. Such lack of disciplinary clause means that a country, rife with human rights abuses like Burma, will continuously violate human rights with impunity. In the case of widespread human rights violations, the toughest action ASEAN can take will be to issue a condemnatory statement. As such, it is hard to fathom a scenario where Burma will be bound by ASEAN Charter provisions while still lacks a disciplinary provision.

The question now is how best to deal with the SPDC? In dealing with Burma, the Obama administration has only three plausible alternative options: (a) to continue the United States existing sanctions by strengthening punitive economic measures already taken by the Bush administration; (b) to lift sanctions altogether and normalize its relations with Burma without setting any conditions; and, (c) to adopt a conditional engagement policy – a carrot and stick approach- which I call the middle course. The first option of imposing unilateral sanctions has been attempted for the last 22 years, but produced no positive outcome towards achieving democratic reform in Burma. Therefore, it is necessary for the United States to put a break to its policy of tough sanctions, but come up with a more realistic and plausible policy. To that end, we should not be under any illusions that the second alternative of lifting sanctions would also serve to bring about the US goal of democratic reform in Burma. Relaxing sanctions without setting conditions especially can create many setbacks. First, for the military regime, it would mean that they are not under any pressure to undertake democratic reform, putting the prospect of Burma’s democracy in jeopardy; second, it would send a wrong message to the world that the US gives up its pursuit of democracy in Burma which will undercut US credibility ; third, it would lend legitimacy to the military regime’s claim of power, both domestically and internationally; and, fourth, it can also mean the US will closely work with the SPDC which, in turn, weaken the morale of Burma’s democratic forces.

In dealing with the military junta like Burma, which makes every attempt to entrench its rule, neither sanctions nor full engagement will work. We need a combination of both elements. As a way forward, the best policy option for the United States to adopt, in my view, is a conditional engagement with a clear metric of success. The middle approach of conditional engagement will allow the US to practically pressure the SPDC leadership from within, and not outside, which is a better option than isolating them because the SPDC did not care about outside pressure. A policy of engagement will require both sides to make concessions on their respective demands by working out their differences to find the middle ground upon which they both can agree.

The outcomes of past US experimentation with isolation policy in dealing with the military regime has failed; Rather than achieving the US objectives of democratic Burma, the isolation policy further entrenches the military regime’s tight grip on power. Moving forward, I agree with the Obama administration’s policy of engagement over isolation. Engagement, I believe, will open up a channel of communication between the two countries through which the United States will nudge the military regime towards democratization. When we talk about engagement, it should not mean that US engages just because the previous isolation approach did not work. First and foremost, to embark on an engagement approach is to ensure that “the Burmese leaders have an absolutely clear understanding of the United States’ goals for this proposed dialogue and the core issues on US agenda. A fundamentally different United States-Burma relationship will require real progress on democracy and human rights.

In terms of implementations, one needs to be realistic and pragmatic, but without losing sight of the US goal of making a democratic and peaceful Burma. A way to engage Burma means the United States adopts a middle road approach, which will situate it between outright disengagement and unconditional engagement. The middle course should be conditional, requiring Burma to responsibly meet the pre-condition such as the release of political prisoners set by the United States. In this regard, I concur with the Obama administration policy as uttered by Mr. Kurt Campbell, “Lifting or easing sanctions at the outset of a dialogue without meaningful progress on the ground on our core concerns would be a serious mistake. We will maintain our existing sanctions until we see concrete progress and will continue to work with the international community to ensure that those sanctions are effectively coordinated.”

For the United States to achieve its policy objective in Burma, it needs to skillfully and diplomatically employ all channels available, starting with direct talks with the military regime at a senior level. A sustained senior level negotiation between both parties will indicate the credible process towards undertaking democratic reform. Secondly, the United States should work with China. Because of the high linkage between China and Burma, coupled with the Burmese regime’s heavy reliance on China for its survival, China undoubtedly has enormous leverage on Burma. Although Burma is viewed as a pariah state internationally, China has been protecting and helping Burma. China’ overall leverage over Burma has been witnessed before. In many ways, China shares US concerns over Burma; China will not want to see the escalation of political crises to a point where all refugees will flux into China. Therefore, the new US policy of engagement with Burma is and will be strongly supported by China.

While fashioning a policy prescription towards Burma, I strongly agree that the United States should treat Burma as a unique case: where the US international projection of its democratic values could realistically be implemented. In fact, I will argue that Burma exemplifies the kind of country that America should help, where the people are already working for their own freedom and democracy, the very values that United States is promoting around the world. Today, through the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States has been providing funding to Burma’s dissident groups. However, funding was meagre compare to the amount of activity needed in order to promote democracy in Burma. One major problem facing Burma’s democratic movement is not shortage of human resources, but rather is a shortage of financial resources. Therefore, while scaling up its efforts in helping Burma democratisation effort, I strongly recommend that the United States considers both maintaining and increasing financial aid.

The ultimate political goal of the United States foreign policy in Burma is to help Burma’s democratic forces establish democracy. To achieve that goal, the United States has applied tough sanctions as a means to pressure the junta (SPDC) in the hope that sanctions will force the regime to undertake a serious negotiation process with the democratic opposition, which will then lead Burma to a full-fledged democracy. However, there is a fundamental disagreement over US sanctions on Burma between the United States and the key Asian regional actors, powerful and influential, such as China, ASEAN, Japan, and India; basically, Asian regional actors do not espouse sanctions. The result of such disagreement over sanctions means a woeful lack of coherent policy and absence of coordinated approach in dealing with Burma’s military rulers, rendering US efforts of democratising Burma a failure. When pivotal countries with substantial leverage over Burma do not support US sanctions as a means to attain the end goal of Burma’s democracy, there is no way that US sanctions will ever be effectual. Therefore, given the US unilateral sanctions have failed, it is essential that the United States alters its policy towards one that will gradually but realistically advance US objectives. Towards that end, the policy choice is no longer either sanctions or engagement, but rather how best to effectively coalesce the two together. Therefore, the most favourable and pragmatic policy is a policy of conditional engagement – requiring both sides to work out a common ground – with a democracy oriented goal.


By Salai Za Ceu Lian
Chinland Guardian

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