If Burma Breaks from Past, U.S. Should Cooperate

By John Kerry

BOSTON - This weekend, the government of Burma held national elections, the first in 20 years under that country's authoritarian system. The elections were the culmination of a deeply flawed process, and should not be considered legitimate.

The military rulers of Burma, which is officially recognized as Myanmar, drafted a constitution and election rules designed to prevent a repeat of what happened in 1990. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won those elections in a landslide, only to see the army nullify the results, round up its political opponents, and impose two decades of calamitous military rule.

The army and its political allies are likely to remain firmly in control of Burma for some time to come. The new constitution reserves a quarter of the seats in the legislature for the military, and two pro-government parties were the only ones contesting many of the 1,157 constituencies in play.

Many of Burma's oppressed ethnic minority groups were effectively barred from participation. And other pro-democratic forces had to battle not only official intimidation, but also an understandable sense of resignation given the tilted playing field that discouraged many advocates of reform from participating in the elections at all.

But merely condemning these elections as a sham provides no comfort for Burma's increasingly impoverished and marginalized people. Merely condemning these elections discounts the possibility that the new government, despite its origins, might nonetheless bring change, with new faces and new policies.

Receive email alerts

One crucial test will occur Nov. 13, when Aung San Suu Kyi's politically-motivated confinement under house arrest is set to expire. She should be set free and allowed to speak her mind.

Similarly, those opposition party members who ran in the elections and won seats should be able to play meaningful roles in helping to shape the nation's future. The military's "roadmap to democracy" will lead to a dead end if the government keeps its political opponents jailed and muzzled.

In the months ahead, if the Burmese government breaks from the policies of the past, the United States should stand ready to improve relations and seek areas of cooperation that will directly benefit the Burmese people.

A short version of their government's to-do list should include: releasing political prisoners, easing media and speech restrictions, seeking peace and reconciliation with Burma's various ethnic groups, abiding by international norms on non-proliferation, pursuing economic reforms, and allowing greater space for international and non-governmental organizations to help meet the critical needs of Burma's people. Progress towards these benchmarks will not only improve the plight of the average Burmese, it will also improve their government's international standing.

In September 2009, the Obama administration admirably decided to embark on a new approach to Burma, combining pressure with principled dialogue to encourage the government to embrace reforms and make a genuine transition to civilian, democratic rule. To date, Burma's response to this initiative has been disappointing, and the existing multilateral and U.S. sanctions should remain in place until we see serious signs of change.

But it would be a mistake for Washington to abandon its "dual-track" approach. It still has the best chance of promoting change, and it leaves America better positioned for the day we hope will come when new leaders with new ideas emerge on the scene. A one-sided, "sanctions only" policy will only serve to diminish U.S. influence inside Burma and with its immediate neighbors.

At the international level, now is a good time for the United States to redouble its efforts to forge multilateral cooperation on Burma policy. Improving diplomatic coordination, no easy task given the competitive national interests of Burma's neighbors, will enhance all facets of the U.S. dual-track approach. Toward this end, I hope the Obama administration explores mechanisms to ensure that Burma is not lost amid the crowded bilateral agendas with Asia's giants.

I learned from my experience working to improve relations with Vietnam that patient, clear-eyed diplomacy, combining elements of pressure and engagement, can encourage even an authoritarian government to change course, particularly if Washington works in concert with like-minded members of the international community.

In the months ahead, I and others in Congress will be watching closely to see whether Burma's government is truly embarking on a path towards peace and democracy or whether it remains anchored to the failed policies of the past.

A change in approach will pay immediate dividends for the Burmese people and, over time, will afford their government a chance to improve relations with the United States and begin to repair its much-tarnished international reputation.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sponsored Links

John Kerry
Author Archive