New Generation of Leaders Offers Hope in Burma

Engaging Burma is not a lost cause, according to an Asia Society task force report released (.pdf) last weekat a roll-out conference at the Asia Society headquarters in New York.

The task force — co-chaired by former U.S. presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark and Henrietta Fore, former administrator of USAID — devised a three-phase plan for the United States to engage Burma. The remaining question is, Does the Burmese government want to be engaged?

The plan — replete with NGO assistance, the bolstering of ethnic minorities, micro-financing and support for the agricultural sector — hinges on one key element: a willing partner in the Burmese government. Though prohibitive election laws and a skewed constitution don’t leave much hope for change now, a shift in the composition of the ruling junta itself offers a glimmer for the future.

“2010 is going to be a significant year in Burmese history,” said Priscilla Clapp, one of the task force’s project directors. She pointed to indicators such as U.S. Sen. Jim Webb’s meeting with junta leaders in Burma earlier this year as a sign of miniscule, yet significant progress in U.S.-Burma relations. Clapp, the former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, is a realist when it comes to policy options for Burma. But she’s optimistic when it comes to a historically stubborn negotiating partner in Yangon that might soon be getting a facelift.

As junta leader Gen. Than Shwe prepares to step back from the limelight, an emerging, younger generation of military leaders will be coming to power. Policymakers are hoping this group will be more amenable to making the kind of incremental concessions that would allow the United States to back away from sanctions in favor of more progressive policy.

But both Clapp and Clark warn that the United States should not over-estimate its ability to steer relations with Burma. Rather, many see China as a more fitting player to put pressure on the Burmese government. To this end, some international groups have expressed frustration with what they view as an indifferent Beijing. But Clapp says China’s approach to Burma is one of “longer view” policies and tacit diplomacy. A dysfunctional, poor Burma does an enterprising China little good.

A “Perspectives From Asia” report (.pdf) also released by the task-force reveals that China would actually like to see a stable, democratic Burma. Clapp says that due to shared interests, China’s opposing style of diplomacy could actually complement U.S. efforts. Washington could continue to hold a tough stance and sanctions while China chips away at a younger, more malleable Burmese leadership behind closed doors — a game of good cop, bad cop.

For now, though, the impasse continues. “We’d like to do more, but we can’t,” Clark said.

The 2010 election is expected to be heavily stacked with defrocked military, and it effectively bars Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy NLD party from running. But judging by early indications, some retired military officials running for office are starting to pay attention to their citizens’ needs in order to win favor on the campaign trail. That kind of progress will take time to amount to meaningful change. But it’s progress nonetheless.

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