On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled the United States will review its policy toward Burma. “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” she said (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/18/AR2009021800273.html) in Jakarta, the second stopover on her first trip abroad as America’s top diplomat.
Burma—or Myanmar as the ruling generals have renamed their desperate nation—is one of the world’s most repressive states. President and Mrs. Bush, to their great credit, worked hard to force change but ultimately had little effect. Aung San Suu Kyi, the inspiring dissident, is still under house arrest, and the junta retains its firm grip despite—or maybe because of—widespread poverty.
As Mrs. Clinton also noted, engagement strategies have also failed to move the generals. Burma’s neighbors in the 10-nation Asean grouping have tried to gently nudge the junta. Like the United States, they have not succeeded in softening iron-fisted rule. The generals, unfortunately, cannot be reasoned with, flattered, or shamed.
They can, of course, be forced into exiled, imprisoned, or killed, but, even in view of the horrific crimes they have committed against their own people, almost no one talks about using force to remove them from power. So what should America do if neither pressure nor engagement works? There are many suggestions as to what we should do to solve this dilemma, but almost none of them gets at the real issue.
The world, after all, does not have a Burma problem. It has a China problem. China, unfortunately, sees Burma as a crucial asset. Beijing wants friendly authoritarian countries on its border—General Than Shwe’s hardline regime certainly qualifies as one—and considers his territory to be strategic—because it provides an outlet to the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, thereby lessening Chinese dependence on the critical Strait of Malacca. Moreover, Burma is an important market. The generals’ new capital of Naypyidaw is, in many senses, made by (http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=7980) China. Burma’s primary protector and sponsor, not surprisingly, is Beijing.
With China in the picture, India feels it must compete for influence with the junta. And with both Asian giants on the regime’s side, Western sanctions are, as Mrs. Clinton suggested, meaningless.
Chinese diplomats may privately say they are embarrassed by their nation’s relationship with Burma, but they aren’t doing anything to change it. They will one day, and that is also the day they will work to bring democracy to North Korea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. And when will this happen? It will happen when the Chinese people—and not the nine men who sit on the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee—govern their own country.
If we get our China policies right—and these days we are making all the wrong moves by, among other things, downplaying (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090220/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/as_clinton_china) our concerns about the rights of Chinese citizens—we can solve many of the world’s other problems. So let’s stop talking about Burma and start identifying the real issue we face.