A Chance for Change in Burma
A Chance for Change in Burma
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

A Chance for Change in Burma

Four months after crushing massive street protests, Burma's generals seem as entrenched as ever. There are few workable options for a way forward. Twenty years of Western sanctions haven't worked. Neither has 20 years of "constructive engagement" by Burma's neighbors. It is time to try something else.

A three-tiered approach - with a division of labor between the United Nations, Burma's neighbors, and the wider international community - holds the best prospect of launching a process of reconciliation and broader reform.

The first tier would build on the work of the UN secretary general's special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. He has been able to establish a reasonable relationship with all the key players in Burma and abroad, and it therefore makes sense for him to coordinate the diplomatic efforts. Within Burma, his key role is to focus on political reform and national reconciliation between the government, the democratic opposition under Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic groups. This will require sustained, low-profile mediation efforts. Retaining the confidence of the generals may mean it is sometimes better to leave public denunciations of their human rights record and other failings to others.

The second key tier would be informal regional talks. For years, Burma's neighbors have taken heat for their defense of Burma, which has seriously damaged ASEAN's relationship with the West. Now is the time for them to call in their favors with the regime.

Indonesia is particularly well-placed to take a lead. It is keen to show progressive leadership, and it carries weight in the region and in Burma. Its recent transition to democracy, reducing the military's political role, and its experience with separatist conflict have obvious relevance.

Regional talks on Burma, based on the prospect of its reintegration into the region, should address the need for long-term stability, democratic reforms, and transparent economic policy. Without joining the generals in their paranoia, the participants will need to reassure them that Burma's stability and territorial integrity are not threatened.

Western nations are generally reluctant to accept that others are sometimes better placed to take a lead. But Burma is such a case. It is possible that the junta might agree to constructive actions with a group consisting of, for example, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and China. It is inconceivable that they would do so if the United States or EU were present.

But the wider international community has a vital role to play too, providing the context for the regional talks and the UN's mediation efforts. This would mean keeping human rights at the top of the agenda; developing a set of escalating sanctions and incentives to encourage progress and punish recalcitrance by the regime; and monitoring the regional talks to ensure they do not degenerate into an excuse for inaction.

A donors' forum could help address the urgent problems of hunger, poverty, and disease. It could also start contingency planning for a transition to democracy. The crisis in Burma goes beyond politics. After decades of conflict, institutional failure, and poverty, the country suffers deep social divisions, incompetent and corrupt governance, collapse of the education system, deep-rooted structural poverty and a health crisis of major proportions.

The creation of a donors' forum would also send a powerful message to Burma that there is an alternative to hostile relations with the outside world.

Finding a way forward is complicated by three persistent misperceptions. The first is that ever tighter sanctions can force change. But the generals are used to ostracism, and they are not going to be forced to give up power. The second is that China holds the key, if only it could be persuaded to exert its influence. China's influence is important, but it can be exaggerated. China has been as frustrated as anyone with the generals' resistance to outside persuasion.

The third misperception is that all Burma needs is an end to the junta's rule. But Burma faces real problems of internal conflict and instability - including conflicts with ethnic secessionists which have raged ever since independence. Military rule has also caused most formal and informal institutions to wither. Even many in the democratic opposition accept that progress will require close cooperation with the army. The junta's so-called road map to democracy, though wholly inadequate, could be viewed as an initial offer for discussion.

Change will require compromises, and will be slow at best. There is a small window of opportunity to try something new. Burma's neighbors, backed by the international community, should seize the moment.


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