Webb's pragmatism is long overdue

Francis Wade

Aug 31, 2009 (DVB), The Burma sanctions debate is where progress could triumph over stalemate, but it is also where the two competing ideologies which dominate international policy to Burma are fought out.

The debate hit the headlines last week following an article by United States senator Jim Webb, who visited Burma this month, that suggested the US should ease "overwhelmingly counterproductive" sanctions on the country and begin to engage with the regime. "The ruling regime has become more entrenched and at the same time more isolated. The Burmese people have lost access to the outside world," he said.

It may well be the first pragmatic step in US policy to Burma, which appears thus far to have fixed on what can now only be seen as a symbolic gesture. Sanctions and isolation are not working, and Burma's political stalemate will only continue unless a change in direction is adopted. Whether in agreement with his stance or not, it is timely of Webb, a senator with considerable clout on Southeast Asian affairs, to reignite a discussion.

The sanctions debate is one that pits East against West, and opposition against incumbent. Burma's regional neighbours continue to engage with the country, resisting pressure from the United States and European Union to adopt an embargo. The business dimension is crucial for them, with Thailand relying on Burma for much of its energy, and China keen to exploit Burma's passage to the Bay of Bengal, and thus Middle Eastern oil routes, should the Straits of Malacca one day be blocked by the US.

On the other side of the table are the Western nations, who have largely followed a policy of isolating the regime and strangling its economy. This strategy promotes the notion that when the situation in Burma gets bad enough the ruling generals will be forced to reach out a hand. Yet more than a decade on, one of the world's most brutal military dictatorships continues to fester behind closed doors.

US senator Jim Webb's visit to Burma this month was the first for a senior US politician in over a decade. Behind the jubilation of John Yettaw's release and the bitterness that Aung San Suu Kyi remains in detention, it could turn out to be the key catalyst for change in US policy to the country, which even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged in February had failed to shift the generals.

It is perhaps no coincidence that junta supremo Than Shwe's first meeting with a US politician was with Webb, one of the few senior Western politicians who is outspoken in his anti-sanctions stance. Webb's views are indeed heartening to the junta, who complain that sanctions are crippling the country's development and suffocating lives, all the while siphoning off its vast gas reserves to energy-hungry neighbours.

Webb is aware of this, but he is also aware that China's growing influence in Burma nullifies the impact of an economic boycott. China is to an extent content with the status quo in Burma, which allows military protection of its business interests and subservience to Beijing, and this relationship has only strengthened in tandem with tightening sanctions. With little tangible results, sanctions have been rendered a demonstration of the West's unhappiness with the regime.

What should worry the US is that Burma's reliance on its few allies has created stiff political competition for the West, which now has the spectre of growing Indian and Chinese influence in the country looming over any potential negotiation. Furthermore, what appear to be cosying relations with North Korea may well add another geopolitical dimension to the problem and further complicate US policy.

In is in this context that we must start to really tackle head-on Burma's political stalemate, and not rely on symbolic methods with highly questionable track records. Webb is the first to challenge what has become almost sacrosanct among Burma observers and the opposition movement , that the easing of sanctions is a reward to the generals, and not an authentic attack on the political stalemate there.

When debating future policy to Burma, the international community must weigh up the risks of continuing a tried, tested and failed policy versus implementing a new one with unpredictable results. While a cynic might suggest that US priorities lie in stemming Chinese dominance in the region, and not improvement in the lives of Burmese citizens, both could have the same end result. Sanctions are not only failing to rein the generals in, but are indeed pushing them in the wrong direction, into the hands of a growing superpower that places respect for human rights low on the political agenda. If this continues, Burma's political, social and economic freedom will remain among the most restricted in the world.

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