Senate To Review Burma Policy

Frustration in the U.S. Senate over ineffective sanctions prompts a new look at Burma policy.

2009-04-08
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Than-Shwe-305.jpg Former junta chief Than Shwe reviews an honor guard in Myanmar in a file photo.
AFP

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to launch a review of U.S. policy toward Burma, with an eye toward seeing if it can be made more effective in spurring democratization and other Western goals for that country.

The review, which will kick off next month, comes as President Barack Obama’s administration is also reviewing U.S. Burma policy and follows a meeting last month between a senior U.S. diplomat and the Burmese Foreign Minister, Retired Major General Nyan Win, in the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw.

Burma is ruled by a junta known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The review was described by a congressional source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. He predicted it would take at least three to four months and expressed hope that recommendations might be ready this fall.

The United States currently maintains tough sanctions on Burma.

The review comes against a backdrop of Senate frustration that current sanctions are not spurring progress toward democratization, release of political prisoners, and other reforms in junta-ruled Burma, and follows last year’s enactment of the Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act.

That law contains sanctions language and provisions requiring the appointment of a special envoy to Burma, along with calls for increased international support for NGOs doing humanitarian work in Burma and authorized U.S. government licenses for humanitarian or religious activities in Burma.

Increasing pressure

Part of the goal of the Senate review, the source said, is to increase international cooperation on pressuring the SPDC.

He added that the goal is to use sanctions as leverage on the ruling generals, but to exploit that leverage by contacts with both the SPDC and Burma’s neighbors to try to agree on an agenda for change.

The source cited a growing feeling that pressure on countries that are the subject of sanctions should be “complemented” by dialogue, and that pressure without a strategy about how to effect change will not bring that change about.

At the same time, he stressed that he sees “no appetite to lift sanctions” without a real move by Burma's junta to free dissidents or expand the country's political process.

Among the areas the Senate wants to look at, he said, are China’s growing influence in Burma, public health issues, hurricane reconstruction, and successful and unsuccessful NGO activities.

The Senate also wants to look at the country's preparations for an election next year and what that election could mean for the future of the country.

The SPDC has set elections for 2010, though they have been dismissed by Western governments as a sham.

The Senate review will look at current laws and will see if any adjustments are needed, along with what new initiatives might be launched to advance such U.S. interests as the release of Burmese political prisoners and the creation in Burma of a civilian government with some legitimacy.

While the source stressed that it would be a “mistake” to conclude that this effort is aimed at loosening sanctions, those sanctions must have a purpose and must be assessed for their effectiveness.

It is likely that only a combination of pressure and engagement will work with Burma, he said.

International cooperation

Preparations for the Senate review have already begun, with meetings having been held with officials from Denmark, Germany, Australia, Norway, Thailand, and China to talk about what those countries have been doing on Burma, what has worked, and what has not.

The source acknowledged that the SPDC could trick the U.S. into modifying its approach without really changing its behavior, but said this could be headed off through a multilateral approach.

There is every risk of such deceit “if we do not approach the junta in a kind of a six-party way, a la North Korea,” he said.

The junta “has demonstrated a surprisingly deft hand in playing one pressure group off against another,” he said.

“The junta, for all of its dependence on China, resents its dependence on China, which is one of the reasons why they have reached out to India and encouraged India’s strategic anxiety."

The source added that a six-party-style approach—including India, China, the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Thailand, the European Union, and Burma—would have a better chance of success than a U.S.-led or unilateral effort would.

The review is expected to start early next month with a roundtable sponsored by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Later that month, the committee will hold a hearing, a roundtable, or both on Burma issues. That may be followed by a Senate delegation or official Senate travel to Burma.

Results unclear

The source said he did not want to predict what the result of the examination would be, but said last year’s Block Burmese JADE Act, in its entirety, indicates what the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, believes.

He stressed that the bill authorizes humanitarian assistance through NGOs, creates an envoy position, and suggests that the envoy reach out to other countries to formulate a strategy for change in Burma. Part of the Senate review, he said, will comprise confirmation hearings for that envoy.

What the review would conclude isn't clear, the source said, but it's unlikely to recommend that current policy should be continued, because that policy is no longer seen as likely to bring about the changes Washington wants.

At the least, he said, the review will call for the full implementation of last year’s law, including provisions on sanctions, humanitarian assistance, and appointment of an envoy.

Original reporting by Steve Hirsch. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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