Let Freedom Ring Hollow

Why Bush won’t really stand with Burma’s dissidents.

Europeans dismiss it as evangelical zeal, Arabs condemn it as blatant hypocrisy, and the Chinese see it as militant nationalism. But in Burma, dissidents living under the repressive military junta just love it when President Bush talks liberty. In 2003, the editor of the English-language Myanmar Times said the Burmese people he meets on the street “want George W. Bush and the UN to come in with a whole lot of guns and airplanes and jets and to solve the problem.”

The 101st Airborne Division isn’t deploying to Burma (called Myanmar by the junta) anytime soon. But if words mean anything, we might expect more from U.S. policy after last month’s freedom fest on the steps of the Capitol. Speaking the day after Condoleezza Rice called Burma an “outpost of tyranny,” Bush told those living in repressive regimes, “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Aung Din, a former political prisoner in Rangoon now with the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, D.C., said, “We are very encouraged by [Bush’s] words, and we are expecting that they will fulfill their promises in President Bush’s second term.” Exile Burmese publications reported gushing praise of Bush and Rice among dissidents and exiles.

Can you blame them? Burma’s military junta, now ruled by Gen. Than Shwe (ranked the world’s third-worst dictator by Parade magazine behind Sudan’s Omar Bashir and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il), has for decades imprisoned political opponents, used forced labor, and restricted free speech. Unlike the other outposts of tyranny—Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Belarus—Burma’s opposition has a widely popular leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who lives in the country and who is committed to nonviolent regime change. In 1990, the last time Burma held elections, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won in a landslide. The generals arrested her and held onto power. Suu Kyi has spent nearly 10 of the last 15 years under house arrest and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. That’s why she gets rock star attention, and Farid Ghadry doesn’t.

Nobody in Washington loses sleep over Burma policy. Burma isn’t a vital oil supplier like Saudi Arabia, we don’t do much trade with Burma as we do with China, and there are no al-Qaida operatives to kill and capture as in Pakistan. Our hard interests in curbing Burma’s massive opium production, preventing Burma from becoming a full-fledged Chinese satellite state, and tapping its modest oil and gas reserves are low priorities. Washington is happy to apply economic sanctions on Burma in the name of high-minded principles because those interests are small in comparison to the magnitude of human rights abuses in the country. And, oh yeah, we have other regional headaches, like figuring out what to do with North Korea.

In 1997 the Clinton administration banned new investment in Burma, and in 2003 President Bush closed the United States to Burmese imports. Suu Kyi and her followers in the West—including Bono and Sen. Mitch McConnell—are avid supporters of sanctions and insist that investing in Burma is tantamount to funding the regime. They don’t like to acknowledge that sanctions hurt ordinary Burmese people. Even the State Department last year estimated that U.S. import sanctions cost up to 60,000 Burmese textile workers their jobs.

More than seven years since sanctions were first imposed, not much has changed. Khin Nyunt, a top general who negotiated cease-fires with several ethnic rebel groups, was ousted late last year in favor of a harder hard-liner, and Suu Kyi remains under arrest. Critics say imposing sanctions is like chicken soup: It makes you feel good, but it doesn’t really fight the disease. Vice President Dick Cheney might agree, because when Halliburton was investing in Burma in the 1990s, he said unilateral sanctions “almost never work” and that “the problem is that the good Lord didn’t see fit to always put oil and gas resources where there are democratic governments.”

While Washington, along with Europe, has been trying to isolate Burma, much of Asia is doing the opposite. China, India, and Thailand have all decided to invest in Burma and work with the generals in the hopes of gaining influence through engagement. China’s government and businessmen are pouring millions of dollars into Burma’s military and businesses. India, worried that Burma is fast becoming a Chinese military outpost, has decided to work with the generals and look into buying Burmese oil and natural gas. Thailand, a fellow member of the regional group ASEAN, now promotes greater trade and tourism with Burma.

Sanctions could work if neighboring countries joined Europe and the United States in cutting off trade with Burma. Engagement could work if the United States and Europe signed up for it. Today, we’re stuck with Washington and Brussels trying one approach and much of Asia trying the other—with neither producing any tangible results.

In the end, Washington won’t be the big difference-maker; the Burmese opposition and Asian countries will. I nternall y, the Burmese opposition * is starting to realize that the democrats and tyrants will have to work out a compromise, no matter how painful it is. Suu Kyi has said she’s open to power-sharing, but the junta hasn’t been serious about negotiating with her in good faith. Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia economist, says a power-sharing agreement could be modeled on the one forged in the late 1980s between Solidarity and Communist leaders in their transition to a democratic system in Poland.

Bush’s pledge to “stand with” people who stand for their liberty is dangerous—if protestors took to the streets in Rangoon a day after his inaugural speech and were shot at, we would be standing thousands of miles from them. Bush will not go so far as to pick a diplomatic fight with China by taking the Burma issue to the U.N. Security Council. But if Bush really stands with the democrats of Burma, he will at least poke and prod Asian friends who are engaging Burma. Ending tyranny may be the “work of generations,” but Burma needs to show some progress by the middle of next year. That’s when Rangoon is scheduled to assume ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship and host its annual summit. It would be a moral embarrassment if foreign ministers were hashing out details of tourism integration just miles from where Aung San Suu Kyi languishes under house arrest.

Correction, Feb. 18, 2005: This piece originally said that “the Burmese are starting to realize that the democrats and tyrants will have to work out a compromise.” This statement has now been clarified to note that it is the Burmese opposition that is coming to this realization. (Return to the corrected sentence.)