With Senator Jim Webb’s return from Burma, policymakers in Washington who want greater engagement with the junta have begun considering their next steps. One South-East Asian diplomat I spoke with suggested Burma’s neighbours would try to broker informal, higher-level contacts between American and Burmese defence officials. Webb said that the time had come for the US to abandon sanctions against Burma and pursue greater contacts with the regime.
But what these urbane policymakers don’t understand is that Burma’s junta, seemingly so backward, can easily play them for fools. Over the decades, the junta has mastered the art of appearing to make concessions to the international community and reaping the rewards without making any real changes.
In the 1990s, when the junta realised it needed greater foreign investment after decades of isolation, it briefly offered Suu Kyi more freedom. She would speak, once a week, to groups gathered outside her house, where activists, writers and occasional tourists would come to hear her. And foreign investment flowed in. South-East Asian companies built flashy new hotels in downtown Rangoon, like the Traders Hotel, where you can spend more on breakfast than many Burmese earn in a month. Western oil companies flocked to bid on large untapped reservoirs of oil and gas. Tour operators drew up plans to attract crowds to Mandalay and the ruins of Pagan. In 1997, the Asssociation of South-East Asian Nations brought Burma into its ranks. But then the regime turned its back on the world. Foreign investors were harassed and assets nationalised; the junta stymied Asean plans to focus more on human rights; Suu Kyi was locked up again.
Yet the international community did not learn. In the early 2000s, another period of economic distress in Burma, the regime once again allowed Suu Kyi more freedom. She travelled the country, drawing large crowds for her speeches. The regime began working more closely with foreign NGOs on such issues as HIV/Aids. Again, Burma’s neighbours and the West reached out, boosting aid and pouring new money into oil and gas. Again, money in hand, the regime backed off. Suu Kyi was attacked on a rural road, nearly killed, and put back under house arrest.
The same game will probably be played out now. The junta craves greater interest from the US, which it can then play off against China and India, the other giants pushing for closer ties with the junta. Worse for the US, through Webb’s visit and the push for engagement, Washington may alienate Burmas democracy movement, since the US is giving the impression it doesn’t much care what happens to Suu Kyi, who still faces a renewed term of house arrest.