Burma: Adding a Third Dimension

By Lynn Yoshikawa

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) recent report, “Myanmar: Major Reform Underway,” has re-ignited the intense debate between the Burma policy community’s pro-engagement and pro-isolation camps.

ICG’s report highlights a number of events since Burma’s nominally civilian government came to power in March, as part of Prime Minister Thein Sein’s reform agenda. Whether or not these events signify reform is unclear, as they have yet to translate into concrete changes on the ground. But ICG’s point is that Western governments should engage now tofacilitate further reform.

The fact is, we can’t know for sure whether Burma is on a definitive path towards reform. Nor can we prove the country will regress back to military rule. We can, however, look - and most importantly, listen - to the people of Burma, who have lived through decades of military rule and various failed attempts at reform: from the 8888 democracy uprisings to the monks’ protest in 2007.

Over the summer, Refugees International worked with representatives of civil society groups operating in Burma to organize a small delegation of three representatives, who tried to communicate the view from the inside to key U.S. policy-makers.

While no three people can fully represent such a diverse country, the delegates held extensive consultations with local civil society groups in Yangon, in ethnic states, and with exiled groups. They also met with pro-democracy leader (and Nobel laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi.

During our meetings with Congressional staff and State Department officials, my counterparts described how ordinary Burmese sensed a very real change in the government’s behavior. Understanding this paradigm shift from a Western political viewpoint was difficult for some staff wemet – especially those who had been encouraged to believe in the possibility of a Burmese Spring.

But for those who understood the region, the answer was clear: the previous U.S. policy of isolating and restricting the regime had not helped. If anything, it had only pushed Burma closer to resource-hungry neighboring countries with little regard for human rights.

Refugees International has worked on Burma/Myanmar since the mid-90s and we’ve gone through our own policy evolution in that time. Reporting on the horrendous abuses of the stateless Rohingya and the Burmese Army’s
campaign of sexual violence against ethnic-minority women and girls, our findings confirmed that the international community’s condemnation of Burma and the UN Security Council’s intervention were fully warranted. (Though China and Russia’s vetoes in the council made the latter impossible.)

But a visit into Burma in 2005 also demonstrated to us that the country’s civil society is growing, in spite of government scrutiny. In the absence of a domestic or international humanitarian response to the devastating Cyclone Nargis, thousands of ordinary people mobilized to save lives. They worked around stifling bureaucratic restrictions and showed that they are fully capable of running their country – if and when their government gives them the chance.

We can’t say which policy camp – pro- or anti-engagement – will be proven right in the long term. But soon, RI will be heading to Burma for our first mission in nearly two years. We look forward to seeing for ourselves what Burmese really feel about their country’s future, and sharing their stories with you.