Mon 1 Oct 2012
Filed under: Opinion
It is an amazing stroke of luck that Myanmar has managed to produce both a Nelson Mandela and a Mikhail Gorbachev. Yes, such analogies are generally glib, but in this case they are apt. In Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese have an opposition figure who traded personal freedom for moral authority and now has begun to spend that moral authority wisely. Less celebrated but equally fortunate, they have in U Thein Sein a president who, though he emerged from a brutal regime and a stacked election, has embraced political and economic reform with a conviction that has stunned the most skeptical foes of the old order.
The country faces immense challenges, including corruption and cronyism, bitter ethnic/religious conflicts, and the potential disappointment if the euphoria passes and the impoverished millions are still impoverished. Until Myanmar writes a new constitution, the old guard still has the right to resume the absolute power it held for almost half a century.
But this beautiful, long-suffering land wedged between China and India finally has the makings of a transformation that deserves America’s enthusiastic help. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton clearly realize this, as do most of the advocates who have campaigned for this moment. America’s ability to assist at the birth of a new, free Myanmar, though, still faces critics so invested in the cause that they are reluctant to take yes for an answer.
I heard both Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein last week as they passed through New York. (You will find conversations with both posted on my blog.) They are, at first blush, improbable partners. Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, radiates confidence, intelligence and charm. The daughter of Burma’s founding general, Oxford-educated, well traveled, multilingual, a Nobel laureate, she seems born to lead, and listening to her makes you a little embarrassed for the level of our own current political discourse.
Thein Sein is a cautious, uncharismatic man with a comb-over and wire-rimmed spectacles. He speaks through a translator, repeating well-rehearsed lines.
He grew up, the son of poor farmers, in a village in the Irrawaddy River delta. He came up through the military with a reputation as an army bureaucrat rather than a combat officer, as a sober strategic thinker, and as the rare honest man in a junta of kleptocrats. He told me he didn’t travel outside Myanmar until he was a colonel in his mid-40s.
Yet these two share, in addition to an essential pragmatism, an awareness that dictatorship has led their country close to utter ruin, and, so far, the spine to stand up to the less forward-thinking members of their respective parties. Both seem impressively aware that consolidating Burma’s promise depends not on the personal qualities of a few reformist leaders but on restoring the institutions and culture of democracy.
The most remarkable thing about Aung San Suu Kyi is how quickly she has learned the difference between being an icon and being a politician. Not all dissidents can see beyond injustice to the virtue of compromise, and those who do often spend as much time dueling with their allies as with their oppressors. Nelson Mandela did not rescue South Africa by spending 27 years in prison; he rescued South Africa by spending 27 years in prison, and then negotiating a power-sharing deal with the people who sent him there, to the dismay of some of his more unyielding colleagues. Aung San Suu Kyi, month by month, grows more sophisticated at using her stature without spooking the old guard. She brought her party into elections, even though she was allowed to contest only a fraction of the parliamentary seats. She has lent some of her credibility to Thein Sein’s administration, endorsing an end to sanctions. She speaks of the need to make the military feel secure against retribution: no war crimes tribunal, no confiscation of property. When asked what could imperil her country’s resurrection, she includes high on the list of dangers the militants within her own ranks. She is an entirely plausible next president in 2015, when Thein Sein says he hopes to retire (depending, he adds, on “the wishes of the people”).
Thein Sein has been understandably overshadowed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s heroic celebrity, but he has managed a surprisingly swift, mercifully bloodless, top-down reformation. He released hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed censorship, initiated cease-fires with several ethnic rebel groups, persuaded the opposition to participate in elections, built a circle of comparatively candid and savvy advisers, and reached out to the West. Aung San Suu Kyi says, as Margaret Thatcher said of Gorbachev, that this is a man we can do business with.
The array of human rights groups, diplomats and would-be investors who have kept the spotlight on Myanmar should feel proud of the role they have played, and most of them are in a state of happy disbelief. But there is some danger that people will draw the wrong lesson from this success story: that most of the credit belongs not to these two Burmese patriots and their ilk but to the ostracism by the Western world.
Sanctions are a crude instrument of foreign policy. Sometimes, as with Iran now, they are the best leverage we have. But they can make victims of the innocent, stir nationalist resentment, isolate the target countries from the good influence and example of free countries and drive them into the arms of unsavory allies. The U.S. isolation of Cuba has, if anything, prolonged the grim tenure of the Castros. In South Africa, sanctions (especially the expulsion from world rugby competition) shamed the ruling white minority, but the economic embargoes were easily circumvented, and the quarantine motivated the beleaguered white regime to acquire a small nuclear arsenal, later destroyed.
Sometimes we get a little intoxicated with our own goodness. When the Soviet Union denied visas to Jews who wanted to emigrate, Congress passed the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which punished the restrictive practice by withholding most-favored-nation trade status. Senator Jackson, Representative Vanik and the Soviet Union are all dead now, and Russian Jews are free to leave, but the law remains on the books — a relic of good intentions, and a needless source of friction.
Until very recently, the U.S. approach to Myanmar was all sticks, no carrots. It was, by some estimates, the most heavily sanctioned country on earth.
Advocates of democracy in Myanmar heatedly debate whether the sanctions accomplished much beyond making the sanctioners feel useful. Critics say the sanctions hardened the resolve of the military junta, threw thousands out of work, notably women employed in the garment trade, and allowed China to become the country’s major arms supplier and trade partner.
Did they also help nudge the generals toward reform? Thein Sein insists not; he says the generals planned for two decades to democratize but thought it prudent to move gradually. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Others who know the country well suggest a variety of motivating factors other than sanctions. One was Burma’s unmistakable economic decline and dysfunction, horribly amplified by the hapless official response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. (Thein Sein was in charge of disaster preparedness, and the ghastly carnage would have presented him with a shocking demonstration of the regime’s ineptitude.) Another was the popular revulsion at the killing of Buddhist monks who marched in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. We know from WikiLeaks cables that the junta — and especially its chief strongman, Than Shwe — was anxious about a possible war crimes tribunal. And the generals may have worried about their country becoming a pawn of burgeoning China, which hankers for access to its ports and mineral wealth.
“The Arab Spring made a big impact,” added Thant Myint-U, a Burmese-American author and adviser to the Myanmar president. Those popular uprisings convinced the generals that unless they began to relax their grip,“they might end up like some of the autocrats in North Africa.”
Even Aung San Suu Kyi, who was a strong advocate of sanctions until the latest reforms, says their effect was subtler and more psychological than most people understand. Outside pressure did not starve the dictatorship into submission, or create the pervasive poverty. Even the displaced garment workers eventually found other markets, she says. But the military rulers made a vociferous show of blaming the West for every Burmese misery and eventually, she says, “The regime started believing their own propaganda, that sanctions are responsible for the ills of the country.”
The most powerful effect of the sanctions against Burma may well be the lifting of them. The desperately needed rewards — trade, aid, investment and tourism, diplomatic respect and access to expertise — reinforce good behavior. And that is now happening as the administration and Congress slowly untangle the restrictions.
You would think the advocates of free Burma would be overjoyed, and most of them are, but not all. While Secretary Clinton was warming relations with Thein Sein, Congress in August — led by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, a longtime champion of Burmese liberation — was renewing a sanctions bill called the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act that already seemed archaic. A well-informed Congressional staff member said this was done to appease advocates who were focused not on the broad moves to democracy but on narrower grievances like the plight of ethnic minorities or the exploitation of Burma’s oil and gas. Fortunately, the administration is allowed to waive the restrictions in the law after jumping through various hoops.
David Steinberg, a Myanmar scholar at Georgetown University and a sanctions skeptic, said the campaign for a free Burma has always included a contingent enamored of its own righteousness. Earlier generations embraced the Spanish Civil War, and then the anti-apartheid movement, he said. “Burma was the last good cause.”
Steinberg and other friends of Myanmar say it is now time for Burmese with grievances to seek redress from their own government, not on Capitol Hill. Aung San Suu Kyi agrees. “I’m sorry some people feel threatened that the sanctions are going to be removed,” she said last week. But, she concluded, “I think it’s time that we stood on our own feet.”