Democracy and human rights activists have reacted with concern to Virginia senator Senator James Webb’s support for lifting sanctions and engaging the ruling military junta, fearing that his advocacy may influence the Obama administration’s ongoing Burma policy review. Webb called sanctions “overwhelmingly counterproductive” and suggested that the opposition participate in upcoming elections.
Other observers, while supportive of the country’s democrats and beleaguered citizens, argue that “by isolating Burma the West only serves to increase the rogue-state mentality that animates its rulers…..- the only people in the world who see the North Koreans as at least partly a positive model.”
Burma’s democrats are not opposed to contact with the regime, writes U Pyinya Zawta, one of the founding members of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance which led 2007’s Saffron Revolution. He rejects the polarized assumption that engagement must be an alternative to sanctions. Rather, he argues, it should be accompanied by increased pressure on the junta.
“Further engagement and further pressure are not mutually exclusive policies or tactics,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International. “And, so it needs more of both of those things.”
The country’s democratic movement – internally and in exile – does not have a monolithic view. “Some influential politicians and activists still cling to the hope that tough public statements, moral suasion and economic sanctions will force the Tatmadaw to return to the barracks,” according to one recent analysis. “The more hard-headed among them privately acknowledge, however, that this approach has failed to shift the generals from their entrenched positions over the past 20 years and is still unlikely to do so.”
If engagement takes the form of normalizing US-Burma bilateral relations, Maung Zarni fears, then Washington will “begin to treat the genuine process of democratization…. as an afterthought at best and an obstacle in pursuit of US commercial and strategic interests at worst.”
Zarni, a founder of the Free Burma Coalition, similarly suggests that the policy options are not as polarized as some suggest. “While pro-sanctions dissidents and political NGOs obstinately refuse to acknowledge that China, India, Thailand and Russia, with their vested Burma interests, will not heed their pro-democracy calls,’ he writes, “the engagers fail to recognize that the military regime has absolutely no desire to reconcile in any meaningful way with political opposition parties, dissidents or groups.”
“It is demonstrably true that American sanctions have not brought about change in Burma,” said Walter Lohman, Asian studies director at the Heritage Foundation. “But the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it, not abandoning the effort,” he said.