When "Pragmatic Engagement" in Burma is Not Enough

Upon his election, President Barack Obama's administration announced a policy of "pragmatic engagement" consisting of continued economic sanctions and direct communication with Burma, hoping to improve the human rights record of a country notorious for its repressive government. 

Recent congressional testimony by democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as two top diplomats' resignations in protest of the oppressive government, highlights the fact that the policy has yielded few results in Burma. Therefore, the U.S. needs to take a stronger position on the ongoing problems plaguing Burmese society to achieve real results. To do so, the U.S. should continue economic sanctions with specific benchmarks in place. These sanctions can be alleviated or strengthened based on the pace and actuality of reform measures in Burma, including release of political prisoners and protection of Burmese human rights.

This past year, Burma has attempted several strides towards change. On Nov. 7, 2010, Burma held its first election in 20 years. However, the UNObama, and others have condemned the election as fraudulent, criticizing it for hindering democracy in the country. Another change to the oppressive status quo occurred when General Secretary of the National League for Democracy and activist Kyi was released after being under house arrest for 15 years. Although these events represent important changes in Burma, they are more superficial than genuine reforms, bringing little, if any, improvement to Burmese citizens' lives. 

Although the military regime no longer rules Burma, it and other repressive groups control the parliament and many aspects of the government. Other serious problems include a judiciary appointed by the president, making it very difficult to hold fair trials. Additionally, human rights abuses still exist, such as forced labor, ethnic cleansing, and forced evacuations.

The lack of significant policy change demonstrates that although well-intentioned, Obama's Burma policy has failed to yield true results. Nevertheless, his efforts should be commended. He recently appointed the first U.S. Special Envoy to Burma. This is a step in the right direction. But he should also pursue efforts to support the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Burma, issued in March. The document calls for an independent judiciary, respect for personal freedoms, access for UN personnel, and freedom of political prisoners that will encourage Burma's transition to an effective democracy.

It will take a concerted effort to realize these changes in Burma. In theory, a policy of targeted sanctions and engagement is sound, but it must be implemented strategically, with specific benchmarks. These benchmarks include the release of political prisoners and direct, meaningful dialogue with the current administration. Sanctions should be lowered to reward progress made by the government to assure human rights, thereby encouraging the government to continue such advancements.

By appointing a U.S. special envoy, Obama has established a specific position to execute this policy. However, if our demands and the UN Resolution are not carried out, the government must be held accountable by strengthened sanctions, demonstrating U.S. expectations for significant results. As recommended by Kyi and Aung Din of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Commission of Inquiry should be established. This commission, led by U.S. Special Envoy Derek Mitchell, will investigate and bring an end to war crimes. This will create an environment of transparency, wherein human rights violations will not be accepted.

The U.S. has a unique opportunity in Burma. It can cooperate with political activists like Kyi and, in doing so, show support for the promotion of democracy in the country. Kyi can oversee the policies that the U.S. pursues and help create an effective and real transition to democracy. If we don't act now, the human rights abuses that have long characterized Burmese society will continue unchecked. We must utilize every tool available to ensure that does not happen.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Elsa Voytas

I am a student at the College of William and Mary about to begin my junior year. My majors are International Relations and Latin American Studies, and I will be spending the next four months in Argentina. This summer, I interned in the Communications Department at the Truman National Security Project and spent two weeks in Guatemala researching the trials since the end of the military dictatorship. At school, I am a research assistant for the AidData project (aiddata.org) which catalogs and aggregates data on foreign aid projects as part of an effort to increase transparency in development finance.

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