The decision by US President Barack Obama’s administration to seek a new way forward in US-Myanmar relations recognizes that decades of trying to isolate Myanmar in order to change the behavior of its government have achieved little. With Myanmar’s ruling generals preparing to hold elections later this year — for the first time since 1990 — it is time to try something different.
Attempting to engage one of the world’s most authoritarian governments will not be easy. There is no evidence to indicate that Myanmar’s leaders will respond positively to the Obama administration’s central message, which calls for releasing the estimated 2,100 political prisoners (including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi), engaging in genuine dialogue with the opposition, and allowing fair and inclusive elections. In fact, the recently enacted electoral laws, which have been met with international condemnation, already point to a process that lacks credibility.
This past fall, we convened a task force under the auspices of the Asia Society to consider how the US can best pursue a path of engagement with Myanmar. We concluded that the US must ensure that its policies do not inadvertently support or encourage authoritarian and corrupt elements in Myanmar society. At the same time, if the US sets the bar too high at the outset, it will deny itself an effective role in helping to move Myanmar away from authoritarian rule and into the world community.
During this period of uncertainty, we recommend framing US policy toward Myanmar on the basis of changes taking place in the country, using both engagement and sanctions to encourage reform. The Obama administration’s decision to maintain trade and investment sanctions on Myanmar in the absence of meaningful change, particularly with regard to the Burmese government’s intolerance of political opposition, is correct.
Yet there are other measures that should be pursued now. The US should engage not only with Myanmar’s leaders, but also with a wide range of groups inside the country to encourage the dialogue necessary to bring about national reconciliation of the military, democracy groups and non-Burmese nationalities. The removal by the US of some non-economic sanctions designed to restrict official bilateral interaction is welcome, and an even greater relaxation in communications, through both official and unofficial channels, should be implemented. Expanding such channels, especially during a period of potential political change, will strengthen US leverage.
To reach the Burmese people directly, the US should continue to develop and scale up assistance programs, while preserving cross-border assistance. Assistance to non-governmental organizations should be expanded, and US assistance also should be targeted toward small farmers and small and medium-sized businesses. Educational exchanges under the Fulbright and Humphrey Scholar programs and cultural outreach activities should be increased. These programs produce powerful agents for community development in Myanmar and can significantly improve the prospects for better governance.
US policy should shift to a more robust phase if Myanmar’s leaders begin to relax political restrictions, institute economic reforms and advance human rights. If there is no movement on these fronts, there will likely be pressure in the US for tightening sanctions. If there is no recourse but to pursue stronger sanctions, the US should coordinate with others, including the EU and ASEAN, to impose targeted financial and banking measures to ensure that military leaders and their associates cannot evade the impact of what otherwise would be less-effective unilateral sanctions.