The United States decided this week to support the creation of a United Nations commission of inquiry into the Burmese military regime’s crimes against humanity and war crimes. That human rights violations have occurred is clear, and many have noted that the Burmese junta’s restrictions on its upcoming elections make it all but certain the generals will retain power. The real dilemma is whether it is better to express moral outrage at these offenses or to hold off, presuming the possibility of eventual change under a new government.
The options for nation states to express moral outrage are well established: sanctions, war crimes trials, embargoes. These are also tactics designed to achieve certain ends: liberalization, increased human rights, regime change or other indicators of progress. The key question for U.S. officials ahead of Burma’s Nov. 7 elections is: Will actions such as imposing new sanctions or endorsing a commission of inquiry improve the lot of the Burmese? Will they help further U.S. strategic and humanitarian objectives in that society and region under a revised government?
The Burmese constitution all but guarantees that its military will remain in command after the elections; by law, 25 percent of seats are reserved for the military. The voting for national and local legislatures will occur before opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to be released from house arrest, and many in her now-defunct National League for Democracy have pledged not to campaign in the biased elections. Further, the generals have legal immunity from in-country prosecution for all acts committed in official capacities.
Despite all this, it is likely that some members of the opposition — in modest numbers — will be among those seated in the central and local legislatures next year — marking the first time opposition voices would be legal in Burma since 1962.
It seems likely that political prisoners will be freed around the time of the elections so that they cannot “interfere” with that controlled process. There have also been indications that badly needed economic reforms could be instituted by the next Burmese administration and that civilians could play significant roles in the government. Essentially, it is possible that in Burma in the near future, we may see the transformation of a “soft authoritarian” state into one that is more pluralistic, including with some legal opposition legislators. In Burmese military lingo, it may be a “discipline-flourishing democracy” — but not a democracy unencumbered by deleterious adjectival modifications.
The plight of the Burmese people has long distressed many. But imposing additional sanctions on Burma’s regime or forming still more commissions will only salve our consciences. Neither will help the Burmese people, persuade the government to loosen its grip on the population, or even assist the United States in meeting its strategic or humanitarian objectives. In fact, such moves would hinder negotiations and relations with a new government that, even if far from a model for governance, would probably give the Burmese more political voice and freedom than they have had in half a century. If our concerns are for the well-being of the people and U.S. national interests in the region, then we might well wait for the elections and whatever government comes into power. Then will be the time to judge whether there has been a step forward and how to achieve our goals.
David I. Steinberg, a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the author of Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know.