President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura
Bush, joined by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the leading presidential
candidates, human right activists, and Christian evangelists, have been condemning
the violent crackdown on protesters led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar.
While they have called for taking more steps to diplomatically isolate the
military regime there and impose more economic sanctions on it, they seem to
have failed to recognize that one of the major reasons for the U.S.' inability
to affect change in that embattled country has been the continuing American
efforts to, well, diplomatically isolate the military regime of Myanmar and
impose more economic sanctions on it.
"Reading the news coverage from Myanmar, I am sure I am not the only one
struck by the numerous ironies of the current situation in Myanmar and the American
response to it," observes Ambassador Chas Freeman, the former chief of
mission in the U.S. embassies in Beijing and Bangkok, pointing to newspaper
headlines reporting that the "U.S. urges China to help curb violence in
Burma, prepare for transition" at the same time that the "U.S. bars
Burmese military and government officials and their families from visiting the
Indeed, Mr. Freeman and other realpolitik types in Washington are struck by
the fact that the world's only remaining superpower had been left with no effective
diplomatic channel to communicate with the members of the military junta in
Myanmar. Thus, Washington has no choice but to plead with the Chinese government
to "do something" about the chaos and violence in that country.
Hence, while the U.S. has a mission in Myanmar, American officials seem to
have limited knowledge about events inside the country and depend, in large
measure, on news reports and information from refugees, exiles, and others in
While continuing to call on the United Nations to isolate Myanmar, Bush administration
officials have been pressing Chinese officials in private conversations to use
their leverage with authorities in Myanmar to limit the violence and help manage
a transition to a new government.
After all, unlike Washington, China and the members of the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) do have extensive diplomatic and commercial interests
in Myanmar, which explains why they communicate with and influence its military
"Once again, we have to turn to China, which does not share our perspectives
or interests with respect to the issues at hand, because we have no credibility
or influence with any of the players in an evolving situation," Mr. Freeman
says. "Once again, our preferred means of exercising direct influence ourselves
is a symbolic distancing of those players," he notes. As he sees it, this
situation came about because officials and lawmakers in Washington sought to
avoid the "moral contagion" of engagement with the government in Yangon
and thus have no effective communication with them or their most likely successors,
who probably do not include any candidates for office known to or favored by
In fact, the Bush administration responded to the crisis in Myanmar by "symbolically
deepening" U.S. inability to communicate directly with its government,
Mr. Freeman stresses, thus empowering Beijing as America's preferred intermediary.
If anything, this kind of American policy ends up achieving a result which runs
contrary to U.S. interests – helping Beijing become the central diplomatic player
In a way, the current U.S. response to the developments in Myanmar is just
another chapter in a failed American policy, including the long-standing unilateral
U.S. trade and investment sanctions against Myanmar.
Indeed, by forcing U.S. firms to disengage from that country, that policy has
harmed American economic interests and done nothing to improve the living conditions
or human rights of the people of Myanmar.
Sanctions have denied citizens there the benefits of increased investment by
American multinational companies – investment that brings technology, better
working conditions, and Western ideas.
Moreover, unilateral American sanctions have alienated U.S. allies in the region
and strengthened the hand of China but achieved none of the stated foreign policy
aims of weakening the military regime and promoting liberal political and economic
reforms in Myanmar.
A self-perpetuating cycle of sanctions, with the inevitable refusal of the
regime there to implement reform, strengthened by internal resistance to U.S.
sanctions, ends up leading to new and harsher sanctions against Myanmar, which
is exactly what the Bush administration is trying to do now.
"America has been seen in the region as more interested in posturing than
in results, instructing those neighbors with the greatest influence in Myanmar,
including China, Thailand, and India, as well as ASEAN collectively, to fall
into line with our preferred policy, especially sanctions," Mr. Freeman
Instead, Washington should have tried to engage with them in dialogue about
what ends Americans might have in common with these neighbors, or the internal
opposition they could work with to achieve these ends.
Moreover, as an alternative to the failed policy of sanctions, the United States
could allow U.S. companies to freely trade with and invest in that country.
Such a pro-business approach to engagement would more effectively promote political,
civil, and economic freedom similar to the changes that have taken place in
China and Vietnam. But politicians and activists in Washington seem to be more
interested in "feeling good" by posturing unilaterally and appearing
to punish Myanmar's leaders instead of trying to achieve gradual and imperfect
"Once again, we appear to have put ideology ahead of the interests of
those closest to and most likely to be affected by instability in Myanmar,"
Mr. Freeman says. "And we are raising questions about our commitment to
take into account the interests and priorities of regional allies and friends,"
An alternative policy would have been based on working in concert with ASEAN,
India, Japan, and other allies in Asia who have an interest in seeing Myanmar
return to stability.
"Having isolated ourselves, we do not know much about what is going on
in Myanmar and must depend for our information on the very neighbors of Myanmar
we have previously offended and now condemn for not following our lead in dealing
with the situation," Mr. Freeman concludes.
The end result is that American policy would only stiffen the backs of the
junta members and would not help the Chinese in their efforts to press the military
leaders. At the same time, by promoting a central role for the Chinese in Myanmar,
Washington may be igniting fears in India about Chinese intentions.
And let's not forget that while some Americans are pleading for Chinese assistance
in Myanmar, other Americans are threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympics
if the Chinese refuse to end their support for Myanmar.
"Sanctions and disengagement are the diplomatic equivalent of unilateral
disarmament," Mr. Freeman explains. "We are ceding our global leadership
to others by our chronic inability to distinguish between interests and values
and our propensity to employ sanctions as a substitute for war in circumstances
where, inasmuch as our interests are too peripheral to justify war, they end
up as a substitute for diplomatic engagement."
Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.