How Do We Walk The Burmese Road?

We have been quick to stamp the words "trade sanction" on the problem file of Burma. Yet how effective are trade penalties when countered with the conciliatory measures that India, Russia, and China have taken towards Burma? Bush has attempted to rally China and India to join the U.S. sanction policies, but to no avail. The international jury is divided on the subject of Burma, and this very lack of unity is what allows Burma's human rights violations to continue unabated. Are all sanctions ineffectual? Not necessarily. There is great difference between a sanction and a "smart" sanction: there is new legislation currently running its course of approval through both the Senate and Congress: The Burma Democracy Promotion Act (Senate) and its sister bill, the Block Burmese Jade Act 2007 (Congress). Both target the upper echelon of Burma's military dictatorship, the top 25 military rulers. Both also propose multi-lateral negotiations amongst members of both ASEAN and the UN. If we want to initiate change in Burma, would it not behoove us to work closely with their diplomatic neighbors?

If unified diplomacy is our goal, then a contradiction exists between our goal and the means we have chosen to attain it. The upcoming Beijing Olympics is already being labeled as the "Blood Olympics" by well-meaning Americans. Yet irony lies in the protest of an event meant to set aside political discordance in order to celebrate international camaraderie. Instead of pointing the moral finger at China's weapons trade with Burma, perhaps we should take a look at our own policies. China shields their oil dealings behind the Burmese Junta, but is it just a pale mirror of what we do in the Middle East? U.S.-based oil company Chevron is currently the largest corporate presence in Burma, shelling out millions to the Burmese junta in oil and gas royalties. The Chinese, to their fault, may provide the Junta with its arms, but we are paying for the ammunition.

If we care about the situation in Burma -- which the Bush administration has stated it does -- then wouldn't we want to keep all inroads open? China remains the most likely catalyst for change within Burma. Why shoot ourselves in the leg by giving Burma's primary trade ally, China, the cold shoulder? The true hole in our net lies with our inability to involve China and the ASEAN (Association of South Asian Nations) countries, who make easy substitute trading partners for Burma. That being said, we have not made genuine attempts to engage these nations, Burma included, in an incentive-based manner. By leaving room for incentive-based trading policies, we are not only allowing for greater leverage and clout, but also benefit from a healthier trade agreement. The championing for incentive-based policies is also echoed by UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who stated, "The world is not just there to punish Myanmar, but to see that there is engagement to address the root causes of discontent." Gambari and the Burmese Prime Minister, Thein Sein, both attended the ASEAN Summit in Singapore. Singapore's involvement in accelerating the peace process has been to send its own ambassadors to various ASEAN nations -- as well as to key players China, India, and Japan -- in order to coordinate their positions on Burma so that they support the good offices of Dr. Gambari. This determined path for insightful interaction over blind exclusion seems to carve a more effective path.

The two sister bills currently running their course of approval through both houses -- The Burma Democracy Promotion Act and the Block Burmese Jade Act 2007 -- both target the upper echelon of Burma's military dictatorship. The bills grant the U.S. Treasury Department the ability to leverage an ultimatum on Singaporean banks that hold assets on these top 25. The ultimatum allows dealings and access to U.S. banks and financial institutions, but only under the condition that they freeze the assets of the Burmese Junta leaders. Moreover, The Burma Democracy Promotion Act also proposes multi-lateral negotiations amongst China, India, Japan, and members of both ASEAN and the UN.

We have made the past mistake of throwing up a wall of sanctions and ostracizing those that do not. With the two new sister bills, there is an opportunity for both strategic targeting against the junta as well as renewed international cooperation. General trade sanctions will only skim the well-buffered wallets of the Burmese dictators. Yet they will also choke off the Burmese people from the world lifeline. If we want to help Burma, it can be accomplished through an astute program and collaborative politics. Perhaps then we can actually make the situation better rather than worse.