Responding to Burmese Reform

By Murray Hiebert & Greg Poling

Children Participate in an Anti-Dam Protest in Burma. Source: Flickr user InternationalRivers photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Burma may be in the midst of the most significant political reform since the 1960s when the military seized control.  No one can be sure if these changes will take hold and how far they will go, but, as Thant Myint-U has argued, it is critical for the United States to recognize what is happening, encourage those pressing for change, and start to consider steps to help end the country’s decades of isolation.

Burmese president Thein Sein stunned the world and his people when he announced on September 30 that construction by a Chinese company of the controversial Myitsone dam would be suspended immediately. The dam would have flooded an area the size of Singapore and by many accounts would have slowed the flow of the Irrawaddy River enough to cause widespread damage far downstream.

More important than the environmental victory, however, was the message President Thein Sein’s announcement sent to his own people. For the first time in a generation, and perhaps much longer, their voices had actually mattered. President Thein Sein proved willing and able to annoy neighboring China and his own rapacious fellow elites to assuage public anger.

Since Burma’s nominally civilian government took power in undeniably rigged elections in November 2010, the paramount question has been, has anything really changed? The Myitsone decision appears to have provided an unequivocal yes, at least for now. Burma’s previous moves toward reform over the last few months were dismissed by many, including the Heritage Foundation’s Walter Lohman and Robert Warshaw, because they did not involve any real cost to the government. The economic and political costs of angering China with the Myitsone decision, however, are all too real.

The United States must recognize that it has a stake in this fight and should take steps to support reform. Burma could chair ASEAN as early as 2014. The United States will need to find a way to remain a player in ASEAN during Burma’s chairmanship, especially the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit that will require the attendance of the secretary of state and the president on Burmese soil.  This will be possible only if Burma’s political system reforms enough for sanctions to be relaxed.

The most necessary step the United States should take is to let Burma know that its efforts at reform are not going unnoticed. Voices in the government have already begun to do this, especially special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, Derek Mitchell. While reiterating that much more must be done, particularly the release of all political prisoners, he has let Burma’s leaders know that the steps taken so far have been positive and well received. With the Myitsone decision, it is time for President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to voice their appreciation for the direction of Burmese reform.

It is also important that the United States provide Burma a road map for the removal of economic sanctions. Until now, prescriptions have been only vague and general. The administration needs to let Burma know exactly what steps are needed for sanctions to be lifted. Without clear guidelines, Burma’s reformers will remain vulnerable to charges from hardliners that their reforms, no matter how many, will never be enough.

These initial steps are not the only tools at the United States’ disposal, but they are the necessary precursors to fuller engagement. They will not ensure that President Thein Sein succeeds in giving his country a brighter future. Nothing the United States or anyone but the Burmese people does can ensure that. But they will send a message of support to Burma’s reformers, and will help ensure the United States is well-positioned to engage anew with a more successful and more democratic Burma.

Murray Hiebert is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Gregory Poling is a Research Assistant with the Southeast Asia Program.

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert serves as senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.