US President Barack Obama’s new engagement strategy with Myanmar risks allowing the country’s military leaders to use direct talks to justify already flawed elections expected this year, a bipartisan report warned yesterday.
The report by the Asia Society, a leading think tank, supports US efforts to press the generals who have ruled Myanmar for decades to hold credible elections and to give more rights to minorities and activists.
However, the US must be wary of appearing to legitimize elections, Myanmar’s first in two decades, that opponents say are meant to strengthen the military’s power, the report said.
“The United States must tread carefully through this minefield,” it said.
“It is quite possible that the leadership’s primary objective in engaging with the United States is to demonstrate to its own population that the United States endorses” the junta’s “road map to democracy” and a constitution that enshrines the military’s leading role in politics, it said.
The report was co-chaired by retired Army General Wesley Clark, a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, and by Henrietta Fore, former head of the US Agency for International Development under then US president George W. Bush. Its release comes about half a year into Obama’s efforts to reverse the long-standing US policy of isolation and instead engage Myanmar’s top generals.
So far, the new direction has done little to spur democracy. Just this week, detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which swept the 1990 vote but was barred from taking power, announced it would boycott the elections. Her party now faces dissolution under the junta’s new, much-criticized election laws.
Myanmar’s government has not yet set a date for this year’s polls.
The Obama administration has called for patience as it pursues talks. In the meantime, US officials say they will not remove sanctions against Myanmar until political prisoners are released, democracy begins to take hold and the government treats its people better.
The report warned that the US could devote only limited time and money to Myanmar because of other global problems. Those include wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an often-rocky relationship with emerging economic and military powerhouse China and nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea.
The report also urged the Obama administration to appoint a special envoy to coordinate US policy on Myanmar, which Congress recommended in a 2008 law. Nine senior US senators have sent a letter to Obama calling for the envoy’s appointment and for the administration to slap the junta with additional banking sanctions.
The US should not directly monitor the elections, the report said, “as this could be seen as conferring legitimacy on a seriously flawed election process.”