Principled Engagement—Balancing Values with Interests

By Aung Zaw 13 July 2012

Washington’s decision to ease sanctions and allow US companies unfettered access into Burma’s lucrative military-linked oil and gas sectors has drawn fierce criticism from human rights advocates.

“The US government should have insisted that good governance and human rights reform be essential operating principles for new investments in Burma,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“By allowing deals with Burma’s state-owned oil company [Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise], the US looks like it caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi and others in Burma who are promoting government accountability.”

Indeed, the US must be careful not to sacrifice its committed principles of democracy and human rights and thus jeopardize long-standing relationships with democratic and civil society forces in Burma. Doing so would lead critics to accuse Washington of hypocrisy and much of its political leverage would crumble away.

The White House has always been a strong ally of the democratic resistance in repressive Burma but a series of political reforms beginning last year has led to plaudits from the international community and Western nations in particular.

Burma soon became a darling of the West and even lauded as a prodigal son. Hillary Clinton, who became the first US secretary of state to visit Burma in four decades, met Burmese President Thein Sein on the sidelines of a business conference in Cambodia on Friday to discuss enhancing bilateral trade.

Yet activists have continued to warn the US administration not to go too far with its aim of “principled engagement” with the once-pariah state. Clinton defended the US move by saying it “does not mean we are satisfied that reform is complete or irreversible.

“Political prisoners remain in detention. Ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability and lasting peace. And fundamental reforms are required to strengthen the rule of law and increase transparency.”

Human Rights Watch and others have expressed concern that it was premature for the US to open up across-the-board investment in Burma and has been seeking much stronger preconditions, including an updated sanctions list and binding prohibitions on investment in the country’s problematic oil and gas industry.

“There are still serious human rights-related risks when investing in Burma,” the New York-based group said in a press release. “These include weak rule of law, poor regulation and enforcement of labor and environmental standards, and the lack of an independent judiciary.

“Another highly problematic issue is the military’s extensive involvement in the economy as well as its use of forced labor and other abusive practices linked to providing security for business operations.

“Government corruption and mismanagement is widespread and has not been adequately addressed. The Burmese government remains dominated by the military, which under Burma’s 2008 Constitution enjoys legal supremacy over civilian authorities.”

As sectarian violence continues in Burma—including mass arrests, incommunicado detention and the killings of Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines in Arakan State—the group says the US announcement was ill timed.

However, the US’s strategic refocus on the Asia-Pacific region is one of the driving forces behind embracing military-dominated Burma in order to advance its foreign policy goals.

Located between rising China and India, who boast nearly half the world’s population between them, resource-rich Burma is more attractive than ever. There are several reasons why the White House, which last week sent its first ambassador to Burma for 20 years, wants to move itself closer.

One principle incentive is to seize onto Burma’s recent political opening and encourage further democratization. Secondly, Washington has long been seen as a strong supporter of Burma’s opposition movement.

Since the regime freed political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party to contest the April 1 by-elections, the US administration has no doubt been placated to some degree.

Finally, Burma has long been seen as satellite state of China. While in the past, India was always the main counterbalance to Beijing’s growing clout in Burma, now Naypyidaw wants to instead restore normal relations with Washington—receiving aid, military training and assistance—to perhaps forge closer strategic ties. The key is Burma’s direct access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.

This also perhaps matches US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific—its ascendancy in the region to counter the might of China. It will not be surprising to see Washington wanting to revive its military assistance to Burma. Burmese soldiers, including intelligence officers, received training in the US until the late 1980s.

There is no doubt that the US is coming back to Asia—this week through Clinton as she visits Laos, Vietnam, Mongolia and Cambodia. Her Southeast Asian tour signals the United States’ growing interest in the region—indeed, it will form America’s pivot towards Asia as a whole.

Clinton became first US secretary of State to visit sleepy Laos in 57 years. During her visit to Mongolia, she told reporters, “My trip reflects a strategic priority of American foreign policy today.

“After 10 years in which we focused a great deal of attention on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is making substantially increased investments—diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise—in this part of the world. It’s what we call our pivot toward Asia.”

A few years back, Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy, “What does that regional strategy look like? For starters, it calls for a sustained commitment to what I have called ‘forward-deployed’ diplomacy.

“That means continuing to dispatch the full range of our diplomatic assets—including our highest-ranking officials, our development experts, our interagency teams and our permanent assets—to every country and corner of the Asia-Pacific region.

“Our strategy will have to keep accounting for and adapting to the rapid and dramatic shifts playing out across Asia. With this in mind, our work will proceed along six key lines of action—strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.”

So apart from trade, security and forging alliances to counter China, one of the key components of US policy is to work with civil society groups—rather than thugs and butchers—and advance democracy and human rights.

In April, Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who has been the chief architect of the Obama administration’s current approach to Burma, made a number of key points in his comments to the House Committee.

These included stating that the nascent reforms instigated by were “real and significant,” highlighting continued human rights violations in Arakan and Kachin states as well as acknowledging the need for further political, social and legal development.

This prompted Washington to adopt a “step-by-step process” toward the easing of economic sanctions which appeared more measured than most other governments were adopting.

Now it is time to see how the US will balance its policy toward Burma during the ongoing fragile political transition, as this remains an ethnically divided nation where repressive measures are still applied and ordinary people do not yet feel they are truly free.