With the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from prolonged house detention, it's time for the United States and its European partners to moderate their sanctions policy against Burma so as to create incentives for greater political openness and to insulate ordinary Burmese from the rigors of the penal actions.
There is no reason why a weak, impoverished Burma should continue to be held to a higher human rights standard than an increasingly assertive China. Why deny Burma the international trade opportunities that have allowed the world's biggest executioner, China, to prosper?
The defining events that led to the crushing of pro-democracy forces in Burma and China occurred around the same time more than two decades ago, yet the West responded to the developments in the two countries in very different ways.
China's spectacular economic rise owes a lot to the Western decision not to sustain trade sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. The Cold War's end facilitated Washington's pragmatic approach to shun trade sanctions and help integrate China with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade.
That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of the opposite decision in favor of sustained sanctions against Burma, which brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators 10 months before Tiananmen Square and subsequently held but refused to honor the outcome of a national election in 1990. Had the Burma-type approach centered on escalating sanctions been applied against China internationally, the result would have been a less-prosperous, a less-open and a potentially destabilizing China today.
By contrast, the continuation of sanctions and their subsequent expansion against Burma snuffed out any prospect of that country emulating China's example of blending economic openness with political authoritarianism. Indeed, the military's attempts to open up the Burmese economy in the early 1990s fizzled out quickly in the face of Western penal actions.
Today, the release of Ms. Suu Kyi offers the U.S. and Europe an opportunity to recalibrate the sanctions policy by drawing on the lessons of the past two decades.
The first lesson is that the economic sanctions, even if justified, have produced the wrong political results. Years of sanctions have left Burma without an entrepreneurial class or civil society but saddled with an all-powerful military as the sole functioning institution.
A second lesson is that the expansion of sanctions has not only further isolated Burma, but also made that country overly dependent on China, to the concern of the nationalistic Burmese military. At a time when the United States is courting communist-ruled Vietnam as part of its "hedge" strategy against a resurgent China, it makes little sense to continue with an approach that is pushing a strategically located Burma into China's strategic lap.
Yet another lesson is that the sanctions have hurt not their intended target - the military - but the ordinary Burmese. By cutting off investment and squeezing vital sectors of the Burmese economy - from tourism to textiles - the sanctions have lowered the living conditions of the Burmese and shut out liberalizing influences.
The blunt fact is that after being in power for nearly a half-century, the military has become too fat to return to the barracks. In fact, it won't fit in the barracks.
With no hope of a "color revolution" in Burma, demilitarization of the Burmese polity can at best be a step-by-step process. In that context, the recent elections, although far from being free and fair, have helped revive a long-dormant political process, given birth to new political players and institutions (including a bicameral national parliament, 14 regional parliaments, a president and a civilian federal government) and implicitly created a feeling of empowerment among the people. In addition to the new institutions and players, the country has a new flag, a new national anthem, a new capital and a new official name, with the "Union of Myanmar" tag giving way to the "Republic of the Union of Myanmar."
With the military now in the throes of a generational change, the revived political process has created new space for the democracy movement, as symbolized by Ms. Suu Kyi's own release just five days after the election. But with the opposition splintered and the military's grip on power as firm as ever, Ms. Suu Kyi cannot bring about tangible pro-democracy reforms without co-opting influential elements within the armed forces.
Now is the time, with Burma in flux, for the United States and its allies to get out of a self-perpetuating cycle of sanctions and help carve out greater international space in Burma in the hope of building a civilian institutional framework for a democratic transition. Each step toward greater political openness in Burma ought to be suitably rewarded. In fact, encouraging Western investment, trade and tourism will help undercut Chinese influence and aid civil-society interests.
More broadly, democracy promotion should not become a geopolitical tool wielded only against the weak and the marginalized.
Can one principle be applied to the world's largest autocracy, China - that engagement is the way to bring about political change - but an opposite principle centered on sanctions remain in force against Burma? Going after the small kids on the global block but courting the most powerful autocrats is hardly the way to build international norms or ensure positive results. As the Nobel Committee bluntly pointed out while awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, "China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights."
An uncompromisingly penal approach against Burma has had the perverse effect of weakening America's hand while strengthening China's. This was best illustrated during the Bush administration, which, after slapping the harshest sanctions on Burma, turned to Beijing as a channel of communication with the Burmese junta.
President Obama began on the right note by exploring the prospect of a gradual U.S. re-engagement with Burma, with his envoys meeting with the Burmese foreign minister and other officials. Yet, on his recent India visit, Mr. Obama attacked Burma three times, reflecting his frustration with the painfully slow progress to create a real democratic opening in that nation.
Despite Mrs. Suu Kyi's release, the seeds of democracy will not take root in a stunted economy. External penal actions without constructive engagement and civil-society development in a critically weak country are self-defeating.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan" (HarperCollins, 2006).
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