Obama’s failure in Burma

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attending the ASEAN Regional Forum this week, it is an opportune moment to examine U.S. efforts to engage with Burma (also known as Myanmar). When President Obama was inaugurated, many in the international community were particularly enthusiastic about a return to U.S. multilateralism to address global problems. Nowhere was this more necessary than in the case of Burma, where a brutal military dictatorship has for decades both oppressed its people and failed to yield power, despite losing democratic elections in a landslide in 1990.

Many observers of the nascent administration, myself included, applauded Clinton’s announcement in early 2009 of a full review of U.S. policy toward Burma. I understood that some creative thinking would be valuable, having spent eight years as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, trying to address the problems created by the junta. Yet since those early days, the Obama administration has made a series of inexplicable missteps.

First, the administration took some eight months to develop its new policy. As the junta increased its repression in the run-up to elections it scheduled for this year, the United States was absent in the global debate on how to respond. Not only did Washington fail to communicate its intentions, but this silence left many diplomats confused. This disengagement resulted in reduced pressure on the Burmese junta as other countries awaited the results of the U.S. review. When a new policy was finally announced last fall, it was remarkably uninspiring and uninspired: keep sanctions and increase engagement. Why it took eight months to develop such an obvious result is unclear.

Second, the administration has left unfilled the congressionally mandated position of special coordinator on Burma policy. While Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has all the qualities necessary to lead the State Department’s engagement with the junta, he is also responsible for all U.S. policy relating to Asia, so he has limited time to focus on Burma, and the lack of sustained focus has been lamentable.

Finally, when the United States got around to engaging directly with the junta, it took a surprisingly unilateral approach. I do not understand why the administration would think it would have any leverage with this regime without bringing partners to the dialogue. The Burmese junta knows it has support from China and Russia in the U.N. Security Council. It is making billions of dollars annually from its natural resources. And the United States will get no leverage from existing sanctions against Burma until it exercises its leadership to bring into the process others whose views do matter to the regime.

If the United States wants to influence the junta, it must immediately change its entire approach. Beyond appointing an envoy, it must make Burma policy a high-level priority. The junta has the upper hand. Without the kind of pressure the United States can bring to bear multilaterally, the junta will have no incentive to come to the table, let alone change its behavior.

Specifically, the United States should reach out to its allies, beginning at the ASEAN Regional Forum, to ensure that most nations will reject the results from Burma’s upcoming “elections,” which by every indication will be neither free nor fair. It should publicly embrace the call of my successor, Tomás Ojea Quintana, to create a commission of inquiry through the United Nations to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the junta, and then work multilaterally to make this inquiry happen. It should fully enforce existing U.S. sanctions and target Singaporean and Dubai banks that do business with the regime. It should work to impose a global arms embargo on Burma. And it should take full advantage of being one of three countries to lead the cross-examination of Burma’s human rights record in the Universal Periodic Review process taking place in the U.N. Human Rights Council early next year.

Some will say it is unrealistic to expect the United States to put in this kind of concerted diplomatic effort, particularly given its other foreign policy priorities. I have dealt with the Burmese junta and understand better than most how hard it is to influence the generals. I am certain that if the United States actually wants to affect this regime, its efforts must be strategic, focused and unrelenting.

Given the forthcoming “elections” in Burma, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have limited time to turn around their policy. As a start, they need to take Burma and this situation seriously. Then they need to show the world that the United States means what it says.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, an adjunct professor of international relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, was the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar from 2000 to 2008.