The U.S. announcement that it would reopen direct contacts with Burma/Myanmar’s military government promises a welcome change from a failed policy of twenty years of isolation and sanctions. Burma/Myanmar has a singularly Manichean politics, as indicated by its dual name: the government and opposition cannot even agree about what to call the place. Foreign activists and governments have been drawn willingly into this conflict, imagining themselves champions of a democratic opposition against a military junta. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations imposed successively tighter sanctions on the country, in the hope of punishing its military rulers and stimulating democratic reform. Yet these have had no positive effects on the political situation. As is often true with sanctions, they have hurt only the country’s ordinary citizens, the very people they were meant to benefit.
Democracy and improved human rights conditions rightly remain the ultimate goal of U.S. policy in Burma/Myanmar, but any true resolution to the country’s manifold problems will require transcending moral absolutism and focusing on long-term progress rather than immediate regime change. The idea that U.S. pressure could serve the high moral purpose of bringing democracy to Burma/Myanmar was a fantasy that did not acknowledge the country’s serious problems. The Obama administration’s new engagement shows a refreshing pragmatism, as opposed to the isolation and sanctions employed fruitlessly by successive U.S. administrations for the past twenty years..
However, the State Department’s initial articulation of its new policy continues to reflect the flawed premises of the sanctions policy: that all that is wrong with Burma is its government, that a change of regime will solve the country’s problems, and that the current regime can be removed through external pressure. Each of these assumptions is false, and adherence to them will undermine the new policy just as it undermined the old one.
All that is wrong is the government. There is no question that Burma/Myanmar has a repressive government guilty of terrible abuses. It does not follow, however, that removing it will solve the country’s problems—because they long predate it. The junta and its abuses are as much a symptom as a cause of these problems.
Burma had a democratic government between independence in 1948 and 1958, and its history is instructive. Coming to power after years of British colonial administration and the disruption of the Japanese occupation, the new government was immediately challenged by a serious insurgency and had little capacity to govern. Instead, power devolved to local party bosses affiliated with the dominant political party, Aung San’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). These bosses could reliably deliver a strong AFPFL vote using resources that included control of land, illegal businesses, government patronage, and privat...
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