In today’s US Senate, bipartisanship is increasingly rare. On America’s policy toward Burma, however, both the Obama administration and my own Republican party broadly agree. Both support democratic reforms and increased investment in human rights and economic development, but both believe that the relaxation of sanctions should be matched by demonstrable progress on the treatment of ethnic minorities, the release of more political prisoners, and the expansion of traditional democratic rights.
That demand for real action is justified, because the limited reforms made on the ground thus far, while real, are not occurring out of a desire by all for democratic progress. Rather, the reforms must be divorced from a Western perspective that believes in the idea of selfless action and placed in the context of the environment in which they are occurring.
Burma’s “reformist” generals, including the President Thein Sein, who has taken the tentative first steps toward reform, have systematically controlled the economy and access to Burma’s wealth of natural resources for a generation. They have used the political process to enhance their control at the expense of their own people, especially certain ethnic minorities who are not even considered to be citizens.
Their rule has seen, if not permitted, an illicit trade in poppies and other goods, including human trafficking, across a porous border populated by disenfranchised minorities.
When I met with him, Burma’s president, Mr. Thein Sein, avoided any real dialogue about the myriad of these issues facing his devastatingly poor nation. Instead, he calmly delivered a monologue on the threats he faces. To the president’s credit, he did initiate the reforms, which took courage.
But in part, sanctions also forced his hand, and failure to move toward reform would have resulted in such a degree of diplomatic and economic isolation that Burma would either have collapsed under its own weight or become a paralyzed pariah, much like North Korea. Ironically, in order for the ruling class to preserve and extend its privileges of power, Burma had to change.