Asia Society’s Task Force on Possibilities for Burma/Myanmar

NEW YORK – On March 31 The Asia Society released its two-part report on political and economic conditions in Burma; prospects for change in that country; an assessment of present and future US policy; and Asian perspectives on Burma. The entire package can be accessed at and merits close reading. The reports were the work of the Asia Society’s Task Force on “Current Realities and Future Possibilities for Burma/Myanmar,” co-chaired by retired General Wesley Clark and former USAID Administration Henrietta Fore. US policy is the focus of one publication. Apart from a situation analysis and policy recommendations, it offers two appendices of particular value: an extensive analysis of the new Burmese constitution, and a catalogue of US sanctions on Burma. The second publication is a compilation of reports from roundtable discussions at nine partner institutions in the Asia-Pacific region, in Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. This comparative exercise is eye-opening, particularly for Americans. In the US policy community, international coordination on Burma is an unquestioned good, but the assumption is often that greater coordination will move other countries closer to the US viewpoint. The Task Force Asian reports instead suggest a multiplicity of approaches and views on the Burma situation.

The US policy report lays out a three-stage policy. Stage 1 presents a gameplan for the present situation, with a complication that did not make the publication deadline: yesterday the National League for Democracy announced it would not participate in the planned parliamentary elections this year. This raises obvious questions for US policy, which has placed theNLD at the center of policy for two decades. The report recommends pushing engagement to reasonable limits in Stage 1 but “The National League for Democracy should continue to be a focal point of US policy support…” At the roll-out event, Clark maintained that the NLD should remain the US focal point as a democratic mainstay in Burma, if not a formal party - under the new Burmese constitution, any party that does not participate in the election will be disbanded. The Task Force recommends enhanced humanitarian aid and educational exchange during this phase as a means of building ties with a broader base within Burma. The lead-up to elections could be a time of heightened instability, and the report recommends that the United States urge the Burmese government to seek a negotiated solution with armed ceasefire groups.

Stage 2 assumes that “indications of change on the part of Burmese leadership” are evident. This does not necessarily mean that elections have taken place, but the Task Force does posit one scenario in which elections replace the current military government with “a quasi-civilian government,” a seemingly civilian administration with a strong overlay of military involvement, even control. This interim stage would focus on building economic infrastructure and providing cautious support for reform. Stage 3 would commence “when real progress has been demonstrated on a sustained basis’” and is marked by US assistance to the Burmese government, including Burmese security forces. At today’s roll-out, representatives of humanitarian organizations complained that contact with the Burmese formal structure comes too late in the plan, and some maintained that work with government officials in health and education ministries is possible now and should begin immediately.

Clearly, and as the Task Force leadership freely acknowledges, even the near-term future in Burma is murky and events are not likely to go precisely according to this or any other external plan. However, the point of calibrating policy in stages and predicating assistance on incremental change is to decrease the degree of polarization on Burma in the Washington community, which has thusfar encouraged competing sides to take an absolutist, all-or-nothing approach. That said, analysts of civil-military relations may question if the Task Force model for a transition out of military rule is realistic in a Southeast Asian context. Those processes in Thailand and Indonesia have been difficult, jagged and as yet still incomplete.

That is precisely the point that many of the Asian roundtables make in the second Task Force publication. With the exception of Australia, those reports tend to give more weight to the Burmese military’s reform efforts thusfar and to express more optimism for an election outcome, if only because their expectations are lower. There may also be an implicit warning in these reports, that Burma’s neighbors see the elections as an exit ramp off the past twenty years of isolating Burma. Indeed, many of the Asian reports have a far more calibrated spectrum of possible responses to events in Burma than the US policy report. The Indonesia report wonders whether there isn’t a need to move the international community’s view of Burma “…away from a human rights-based and ‘problem-centric’ view to a ‘peace-centric’ view.” The Thai report is frank in its worry that abrupt political change in Burma could produce internal instability that might spill across borders: “The status quo is preferred if change leads to volatility, turmoil, and violence…” Presenting this variety of views not only identifies differences but may also suggest a division of labor in the international community that could be useful in supporting change in Burma. Clearly, neighboring governments may be more acceptable and effective interlocutors with the Burmese military than the United States.

The comparative report also offers a corrective to Western views of emerging power dynamics in Asia. The China report criticizes US views of Burma’s nuclear intentions; even more interesting is its embrace of a recent report by the International Crisis Group that downplays China’s influence on the Burmese government and maintains that Beijing is only able to extract minor concessions from the regime. The India report will dash the hopes of some US policymakers who believe that New Delhi can be persuaded to press the Burmese regime for change because of India’s status as the world’s largest democracy. instead, India appears to view the situation there largely with indifference. “Not a single credible person has dedicated himself or herself to studying Myanmar comprehensively as a primary interest,” the report insists. “India still accords the lowest priority to its relations with Myanmar among all its immediate neighbors.”

The recent decision by Myanmar’s government to sentence pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to a further 18 months’ house arrest shows how difficult it is to deal with that country’s ruling generals. Yet the first steps toward a new approach may already have been taken.

The clearest sign comes from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. At first, most of ASEAN’s member governments responded mildly to the verdict, expressing their “disappointment” – a stance that reflects the group’s principle of noninterference in fellow members’ internal politics.

But Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya then consulted his counterparts in Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. As current ASEAN chair, he floated the idea of concertedly requesting a pardon for Aung San Suu Kyi.

ASEAN government officials have since met to draft a text. Approval by the association’s foreign ministers may come in September, with ASEAN leaders tackling the issue in October.

Of course, amendments and objections to the draft should be expected. But the pardon request is already significant. It seeks to be finely balanced, respecting the regime’s sovereignty while subtly pressing home the point in unison, as neighboring states. The request would be politely worded, but it would also be an official and public mode of communication, instead of the usual behind-the-scenes quiet diplomacy.

What ASEAN says or does not say will not change things immediately. Cynics might add that even if Aung San Suu Kyi is pardoned, she may yet still be detained on political grounds or face other barriers aimed at preventing her from competing in the elections promised in Myanmar for 2010.

But Western sanctions have not worked, either. Since the 1990’s crackdown, human rights violations have continued, most recently with the suppression of the protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. The average citizen has grown poorer, even as those close to the junta become ostentatiously rich.

Western sanctions instead paved the way for investments in Myanmar by those with less concern about human rights violations – first by ASEAN neighbors in hotels and other sectors, and more recently by China and India, which are vying for projects and influence in the strategic energy sector. As a result, Myanmar’s generals have been able to play one side off against another.

The game, however, may now be changing. ASEAN’s initiative is a new step forward for the group. While ASEAN rejected previous calls to impose sanctions, or even to expel Myanmar, this step shows that it will not remain inert regardless of what the generals do. Moreover, some ASEAN member countries, like Singapore, have explicitly called for Aung San Suu Kyi to be allowed to participate in the 2010 elections.

The ASEAN effort coincides with two other developments. One is the decision by the United States to reconsider its policy of sanctions, becoming more flexible while remaining true to its values and interests.

Some activists have criticized US Senator Jim Webb’s journey to Yangon to obtain the release of John Yettaw, the American whose actions triggered the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi. But this is consistent with the Obama administration’s policy of seeking a dialogue even with those who are not America’s friends. Such dialogue is vital if Myanmar is to be prevented from possibly pursuing nuclear weapons and rigging elections, à la Iran.

The other development is less obvious. After the court delivered its verdict, the regime halved the sentence and agreed to keep Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, rather than moving her to one of its worst jails. This may not seem like much of a concession. But the junta seems to be trying to cause less offense.

Consider, too, the junta’s gesture in handing over Yettaw to Senator Webb, and its interaction with the international community on humanitarian assistance after Cyclone Nargis. Might it be possible that the generals in Myanmar recognize that they are in a cul de sac? Could the regime be seeking ways out of its isolation in the run-up to the 2010 elections? Could it welcome dialogue and engagement?

How the generals respond to the ASEAN request will be an important signal of the regime’s intentions. Even if the regime does want to begin talking, sustaining a dialogue will be no easier than has been the case with North Korea.

ASEAN, as the organization of neighboring states, is important to achieving that goal, but US involvement is key, as is inclusion of China and India. They must be pressed to see more than the opportunity for strategic access to energy and other natural resources. Japan, too – still the largest Asian economy and a traditional donor to the region – must also play a role.

A moral but pragmatic community needs to be constructed, with all in agreement on how to deal with Myanmar. Even if, like an orchestra, different countries use different instruments and play different notes, the main theme must be consistent.

If this can be done, the chances of progress in the run-up to the 2010 elections will be strengthened. Success may still prove elusive, but a new game with a greater possibility for success will have begun.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.