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John Feffer

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

December 7th, 2011 5:59 PM

Burma: Engagement or Appeasement?

Is detente with Burma just around the corner?

Several years ago, I wrote an article about Burmese cooking. My editor at the magazine inserted a sentence at the end of the piece that read something like this: “And there has never been a better time to visit Burma and sample its delicious cuisine.”

I immediately called up the editor and explained that, yes, Burmese cuisine is delicious, but it was probably one of the worst times to visit the country. I told her about the sanctions against the Burmese government and the tourism boycott favored by opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. I managed ultimately to persuade the editor to remove the offending sentence, but it wasn’t easy. Editors: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

Burmese food is still delicious. But the tourism ban is largely a thing of the past. Last fall, the Burmese government released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. She reciprocated by endorsing small-scale tourism, a policy shift that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) adopted last May. And last week, the most important tourist of all, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arrived in Rangoon to tour the famous golden pagoda, among other things. This first visit to Burma by a U.S. secretary of state in more than 50 years heralds a possible breakthrough in U.S.-Burma relations, shines a light on an ongoing transformation in Burmese society, and has generated the predictable pushback from those who suffer from the political disease known as the appeasement complex. 

Back in 2008 when the Burmese military junta announced a new constitution as a step toward civilian rule, the international community responded with considerable skepticism. The military didn’t look as though it intended to give up any real power. When Thein Sein won election as president earlier this year, The New York Times described it as “a move that cements the military’s control of a new political system.” The new president was widely considered a puppet of the top military general Than Shwe.

Sometimes, though, puppets manage to take on a life of their own. Burma has not exactly become a democracy overnight. But the changes initiated by Thein Sein are significant nonetheless. “The Burmese government has recently released more than 6,000 political prisoners,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Iqbal Ahmed in Is Burma Really Changing? “In an uncharacteristic move, former army general Thein Sein, who came to power in March, thwarted the Chinese-funded $3.6-billion Myitsone dam project in the state of Kachin, relenting to continuous pressure from the Burmese citizens in that region.”

The government has passed some significant laws legalizing peaceful protest and union strikes. The head of the censorship bureau, essentially calling for his own early retirement, told Radio Free Asia that “press censorship is non-existent in most other countries as well as among our neighbors and as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future.” After holding talks with the government, Aung San Suu Kyi plans to run for parliament in upcoming by-elections.

Government mediators are even pursuing agreements with rebels who have been fighting, in some cases for decades, against the military. The first agreement, with Shan rebels, was negotiated a couple days ago. According to one civil society observer, mediators have reached out to Karen, Karenni, Chin, and Kachin rebels as well.

“It’s Burma rebooted,” the NLD’s second-in-command U Tin Oo told Newsweek. “Everything is happening with a speed we couldn’t even foresee.”

When President Obama announced at the end of his Asia tour last month that Secretary of State Clinton would visit Burma, The Washington Post editorialized that the administration was giving the government there “undeserved validation” because the generals had yet to create a “peaceable democracy.” Clinton, who doesn’t represent a peaceable democracy either and perhaps knows something about unreasonable expectations, went anyway. There she sat down with Aung San Suu Kyi, parlayed with Thein Sein, and promised U.S. support in step with democratic changes.

It’s a great irony that Hillary Clinton, who criticized Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election for being “naïve” in offering to meet with the leaders of “rogue” nations, is the one extending an open hand to Burma. But the Obama-Clinton initiative is far from naïve. It borders on the devious. In addition to ushering in U.S. businesses to compete for Burma’s considerable natural resources, the opening to Burma is part of a much larger effort to reduce China’s sway in its traditional sphere of influence.

China has been heavily invested in Burma. And the Burmese are starting to worry about becoming too dependent on their big brother in Beijing. “Concerns about this Chinese-led development and its many inherent risks are a heated topic in Burma today,” writes FPIF contributor Dan Beaker in Burma’s Big Brother. “Discontent can be heard in the rallies and public statements of opposition armed forces in the border areas, in cabinet and parliamentary meetings in Napyidaw, in the teashop natter of academics in Yangon, and in the day-long councils of elders in swidden and fishing communities across the rural hinterlands. Conducting research in central Burma earlier this year, I often heard talk of ‘the Chinese invasion,’ referring to the investment drive, and of the use of ‘Chinese agents dressed as investors’ in a recent privatization of government assets.”

The imminent détente with Burma has continued to generate criticism from those who suffer from the appeasement complex, a syndrome that causes politicians to conflate diplomacy with selling out and negotiating with kowtowing. Unfortunately, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has an advanced case of this syndrome. “Secretary Clinton’s visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal,” she chastised the Obama administration. 

The Republican presidential candidates have yet to get behind Ros-Lehtinen. Perhaps some of them are still scrambling to find Burma on the map (hint: some people call it Myanmar). But never doubt that Gingrich, Romney, Perry, and Santorum suffer from their own appeasement complexes. My favorite example comes from Michele Bachmann, who is always good for a laugh. After Iranian students stormed the British embassy and London pulled out its diplomatic staff, Bachmann told supporters in Iowa, “That’s exactly what I would do [if I were president]. We wouldn’t have an embassy in Iran. I wouldn’t allow that to be there.”  

The United States hasn’t had an embassy in Iran since 1979. The Bachmann team tried to clarify that she was speaking hypothetically about a time when the United States might have an embassy in Iran. But that, frankly, is worse. According to the first interpretation, Bachmann simply made a gaffe. According to the clarification, she was stating a policy. We wouldn't have an embassy in Iran – or Burma – because…because they're bad people. And we don't talk to bad people, ever. And yet Bachmann continues to share the stage with Rick Santorum. Go figure.

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