Long before Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was ordering the murder of his people, the generals misruling a Southeast Asian nation 4,000 miles distant had shown the way.
In 1988, the regime in Burma, a once-promising nation of 50 million, slaughtered unarmed university students to derail democracy. In 2007 the junta gunned down pacifist Buddhist monks in their robes and sandals.
But outrage fades, people forget, a few generals have traded in their uniforms for civilian suits — and so pressure is building from governments, companies and nonprofit groups to lift sanctions and “engage” with the regime.
Before that happens, it’s worth thinking about some early lessons of the Arab Spring.
The engagement argument comes down to this: Sanctions against Burma haven’t worked. Two decades since the regime threw out the results of an election that it had (in its delusions of popularity) allowed, it is no more popular but no less entrenched. With U.S. companies and diplomats mostly absent, China has become the dominant power. The Burmese people remain poor and isolated from the world.
Why not try something new? Why not jettison self-defeating idealism for something a bit more pragmatic?
A few possible reasons come to mind. One is that engagement with a regime that so suffocates its nation may strengthen the regime. Western Europe has been engaging with Cuba for decades; the Castros pocket the euros at no apparent cost to the stability of their dictatorship.
Nor would engagement do much for the U.S. economy. As long as Burma pursues its peculiar brand of paranoid crony socialism, it won’t offer much of a growth opportunity.
Moreover, it’s a bit unfair to say that sanctions don’t work, because the United States has never fully tried them. It hasn’t targeted the personal finances of Burma’s rulers and their relatives with any focus or intensity. It has never made clear to Burma’s neighbors — some of which are new democracies themselves, uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with brutal generals — that helping democrats inside Burma is a strategic priority. It talks about a United Nations commission of inquiry into the regime’s crimes against humanity — mass rape, child labor, ethnic cleansing — but has never pushed for it, despite support for a U.N. inquiry (though not a tribunal) from Burma’s democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Pushing might dilute the perennial charge of hypocrisy (why bomb Moammar Gadhafi but do nothing as Burma’s regime empties village after village?). Pushing also might show Gadhafi, Assad and other Arab dictators that they can’t just wait out the world’s disapproval.
But the strongest argument emerges from a public opinion survey carried out this spring by the Pew Research Center — in Egypt.
There, for decades, the United States followed the entirely pragmatic policy of engagement. Led by U.S. ambassadors in Cairo for whom the Mubarak clan could do no wrong, U.S. governments routinely dismissed as naive and unrealistic the Egyptian people’s desire for a more dignified life. When Egyptians finally took to the streets to demand self-rule, the United States stuck with President Hosni Mubarak until any hope of his survival was gone.
The result? “Only 20 percent of Egyptians hold a favorable opinion of the United States,” Pew found. “The American president gets more negative than positive reviews for how he is handling the political changes sweeping through the Middle East. … A plurality of those who disapprove say Obama has shown too little support for those who are calling for change.”
The United States put itself on the wrong side of history, in other words, and now it is paying the price.
Which raises the question of where exactly pragmatism lies.
If you believe that the Burmese junta represents the future, then it makes sense to build ties and mend fences. And it’s true that no one has figured out how to predict precisely when a regime will crumble — or when its soldiers will decide they no longer want to shoot students and monks.
But the junta clearly understands that it is hated. That is why it censors all media, imprisons thousands of dissenters (many of whom have been on a hunger strike in May), bans the only political party with popular support (Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy) and squanders billions on an isolated new capital where no ordinary people are allowed to live or even enter. On some level, as the rest of Asia speeds past them, these septuagenarian thieves must understand that they do not, in fact, represent the future.
The United States can affect the date of their demise only at the margins, just as it took the Egyptian people to bring about Mubarak’s fall. But what America does now could affect the results when Pew conducts its first survey in democratic Burma.
Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.