Burma/Myanmar: The Practicalities of Engagement

On April 26, 2010, the Atlantic Council of the United States, the US-ASEAN Business Council and NBR convened a forum on U.S. policy responses to Burma/Myanmar, considering the practicalities of engagement. Two former U.S. Charges d’Affaires to Burma/Myanmar—Priscilla Clapp (July 1999-August 2002) and the Honorable Kent Wiedemann (October 1996-May 1999)—shared their experiences, while Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, moderated. Participants included representatives from Congressional offices, foreign embassies, the U.S. Department of State, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, and academia, among others.

The United States and the international community have long grappled with how to respond to Burma/Myanmar. The Obama Administration has adopted a U.S. policy approach designed to balance existing sanctions with “pragmatic engagement” to expand contacts with both government and non-government actors in Burma. However, it will be difficult to expect any significant returns on, or to assess its viability of, this policy shift until elections scheduled for this year in Burma/Myanmar—the first since 1990—take place.

The following key points and recommendations are based on different perspectives raised during the discussion.

Key Points

Real change will likely be a long time coming to Myanmar/Burma, but there is still a window of opportunity for the United States to better coordinate its policy with international institutions and partners in the region, including ASEAN and the United Nations.

Although we can expect government officials in Burma/Myanmar to concentrate almost exclusively on the elections for the coming year, after the elections there could be more opportunities for expanding engagement.

Additionally, opportunities for community development have been increasing, making it possible to promote “bottom-up” change. At the grassroots level, U.S. policy should emphasize assistance to educational institutions and the development of institutions that support good governance.

Key Recommendations

Various suggestions arose, addressing a range of ideas. These included:

  • Focus on grassroots assistance to facilitate change from the bottom up.

  • Invest in education: The education system has deteriorated seriously over the last twenty years with significant repercussions on the human resource pool.

  • Understand the opportunities to expand engagement: Political activity is intensifying in preparations for the elections, and more than twenty parties have registered to run in the elections. After the elections there will be fourteen new regional and state governments, in addition to the national parliament.

  • Develop a more serious multilateral approach: Now more than ever the United States needs to better coordinate on Burma/Myanmar policy with partners in the region.

  • Remember human rights: China, India, and others in the region have untapped leverage to press for positive changes in Burma; civil liberties remain necessary to those efforts.