The U.S. Role in Burma

September 6, 2008

The U.S. role in Burma


By Alan Gilbert


In light of the changes happening in this, and election year it is important that we evaluate the current role of the U.S. and its direction in the future in the affairs of Burma.


As you may recall, first there was the Monk’s uprising of September 2007, the first and most violent since the 1988 revolt in which some 3000 people were killed. Led by the young Buddhist monks and closely linked with the pro-democracy movement that has kept political opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest since 1990 when her party was overwhelmingly voted into power. The military junta that rules Burma continued to hold the reins of power of course, while Burma (now called Myanmar by the junta but not by the mix of ethnic groups that make up the country’s population) has through mismanagement been reduced to one of the poorest in the region.


The suppression of this latest protest came as no surprise as the junta maintained its iron grip on the region and used brute force to put down opposition.


Then came the cyclone that killed upwards of 100,000) and left two or three million homeless; a disaster on a scale like that of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004. The storm would have been newsworthy enough, but then in what can only be called an act of arrogant stupidity, the junta, held up the issuing of the necessary visas so that relief workers could bring aid to the devastated region, resulting in even more deaths and massive human suffering.


And how has the U.S. responded to this surge of democratic revolt? It has imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions on the generals and their cronies. This is a similar strategy to the one exercised on Iraq after the first Gulf War, and its effectiveness has not improved in the interim.


The sanctions are in fact intended to isolate the military and force it from power and allow the politicians to say that they have “done something” with regards to the situation in Burma. In fact they will in all likelihood drive Burma into a closer relationship with China, while U.S.-ally Thailand continues to cope with the growing flood of Burmese refugees.


The irony of course is that Burma is rich in natural resources and with its enthusiastically pro-democratic population is potentially an extremely strategic ally in the region, which being situated between China and India, is a bridge between the two economic superpowers.


But of course the U.S. news is now dominated by the swiftly changing events of its presidential and congressional elections and Burma has once again sunk below the radar. The current administration is unlikely to do anything more than give lip service as the clock runs out on its term. Let’s see what the next administration is up to.


It is only to be hoped that the next administration will take a different tack and exercise some serious and long-overdue diplomatic and political pressure on the now-aging junta. It is both a daunting challenge and a huge opportunity, and the eventual fate of this embattled country may well hang in the balance.


Alan Gilbert is a political analyst and editor of BurmaWatchUSA.