Thursday, August 20, 2009

Webb visit challenges opposition assumptions

by Joseph Ball
Thursday, 20 August 2009 18:51

(Commentary) - The fallout from U.S. Senator Jim Webb’s recent visit to Burma sheds light on inherent fissures and miscommunication both internal to Burma’s leading pro-democracy alliance and between the opposition and at least one of its primary international backers. If the country’s pro-democracy opposition, in its existing constitution, is to maximize its chances of success – these cracks in the foundation demand immediate attention.

In short, Burma’s democratic opposition has crippled itself by relying far too heavily on two assumptions: 1) – that it necessarily understands and acts in accordance with the strategic thinking of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and 2) – concluding that the interests of the United States intrinsically align themselves with those of the democratic opposition.

Taking the second point first, the interests of the United States in Burma have not changed in 20 years and ideologically have their roots in the first half of the 20th century. The Obama administration’s approach to Burma, put succinctly, is a continuation of well-established U.S. policy to the region. The primary goal remains unaltered – containment of possible rival powers on the greater Eurasian landmass.

It should not be lost on interested parties, despite modest success toward Indian national interest, the importance of New Delhi in failing to significantly dent Chinese influence in Burma – for example, two years previously with the inability of India to secure contracts relating to the shipment of natural gas from Burma’s Shwe gas field. Such a counter by a democratic/military U.S. ally to Beijing’s growing clout was viewed by Washington as a critical development, despite New Delhi’s lukewarm support for Burma’s own democracy movement.

What has changed regarding U.S. foreign policy to Burma is the acceptable approaches to achieving America’s overriding goal. While rhetoric relating to “democracy” and “human rights” has been and will remain en vogue – and sanctions are by no means to disappear overnight, the truth is far less idealistic and far more abrasive: the United States is concerned first and foremost with the national interests of the United States, to which democracy and human rights, as with elections, are tools to be used when convenient to confer legitimacy upon a favored policy and/or personality in pursuit of an American agenda.

If Burma’s democratic opposition is solely concerned with the final outcome, then there remains little to differentiate their and U.S. interests. But, for considerable and influential portions of the aforementioned opposition bloc, the means to the end has come to be held just as sacrosanct as the end itself. This is wherein lies the present tension between Burma’s pro-democracy opposition and the United States.

While the Bush administration for eight years – a stretch of time which dominates the recent post-’88 history of involvement by Washington in Burmese affairs and was in accord with the dominant hardline voice of Burma’s democratic opposition – stood content with cries of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ and publicly sought the immediate overthrow of Burma’s ruling generals as a means of countering Chinese – and to a lesser extent Russian – influence and presence in Burma, the Obama administration, while promoting the same goals, appears at least willing to explore alternative currents in support of American priorities.

Senator Webb himself is said to have drawn attention, during his tête-è-tête with Aung San Suu Kyi, as to his – and what can reasonably be said to be his country’s – fear of growing Chinese dominance inside Burma. It was a succinct and brutally honest appraisal of U.S. interest in Burma, sounded by a ranking member of the Washington establishment and delivered to Burma’s opposition leader.

Significantly, the affront was reportedly brushed aside by Burma’s democracy icon, who expressed the opinion that there was nothing to fear from China and that the regional hegemon remained vital to the future of Burma and should, accordingly, not be vilified.

The response effectively signals that Suu Kyi is out of step with Washington’s paramount interest in her country – though she may very well have spoken appropriately as a Burmese citizen and to the best interests of her motherland.

This leads to the second critical misstep of Burma’s democratic opposition: convincing itself that it can speak for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Though recent months have seen a slight uptick in opposition interest to positively engage China, the by far dominant message to be taken from opposition activists and organizations during Suu Kyi’s lengthy detention has been one of unabated condemnation and ridicule of Beijing and its policies.

It then follows that the attention, time and money directed at demonizing China has been used counter to the wishes of Burma’s democracy icon and, accordingly, against what she perceives as in the best long-term interests of Burma. This is not to say that Burmese and Chinese interests are one and the same, but that the sowing of an antagonistic relationship between Rangoon/Naypyitaw and Beijing is counterproductive to the interests of the Burmese people.

China, as with the United States, is concerned with Chinese interests. By outwardly threatening Chinese investment and interests in Burma, the country’s democratic opposition has served to diminish its own leverage.

Not of coincidence, the strong vitriol directed against Beijing by Burmese opposition parties does serve the stated interests of one country in particular – the United States. This is a fact not lost in the halls of Beijing or Naypyitaw, assisting – rightly or not – in painting the opposition as an arm of U.S. foreign policy and thereby an enemy to Burmese nationalism, the principle purview of Burma’s men in arms.

Perhaps even more telling than the exchange regarding China, however, was the revelation at a press conference in Bangkok by Senator Webb following his visit, during which he inferred Suu Kyi may be accepting to the loosening of the sanctions noose. This sentiment sent shock waves through the opposition community as sanctions remain the cornerstone of their policy in confronting the junta.

It is unlikely that Senator Webb attempted to falsely misrepresent Suu Kyi on the issue of sanctions. What is far more likely is that opposition elements sought immediate word to the contrary from The Lady herself in order to patch over a potential momentous gap in the opposition’s foundation.

Yet, tellingly, Suu Kyi’s apparently unequivocal rebuttal of Senator Webb’s assessment of China was again evidently accompanied by language of nuanced ambiguity as to the issue of sanctions – a choice of words then regurgitated and spun by the international media as proof that she stands firmly behind a sanctions regime.

The truth, as is usually the case, is not so simple.

As related via second-hand quotes, her sentiment that sanctions cannot be addressed until the regime first interacts “inside the country” can easily be interpreted as either accepting of an inevitable softening in sanctions as political reconciliation progresses or as steadfast support for an ongoing sanctions policy until opposition victory is relatively assured.

Both Webb and the democratic opposition took from Suu Kyi’s musings what they wanted, the former as a convenience to providing flexibility in United States policy and the latter as necessitated by its already having invested so much in upholding an unbending sanctions policy attributed to be in agreement with the thinking of Suu Kyi.

Barring the advent of the acceptable means to the end of Burma’s political deadlock as envisioned by Burma’s pro-democracy opposition, is the community capable of reorienting itself to alternative strategies to secure the same end result if both its assumptions of internal leadership and external relationships prove compromised? Will the legacy of Aung San Suu Kyi be formed by The Lady herself or held hostage to those, as well-intentioned as may be the case, purporting to speak and act in her name? Can tough decisions be made in the name of and prioritizing national interest and realpolitik as opposed to “international norms” and moral absolutes?

In suggesting that Senator Webb’s visit was ill-founded due to the “imperfect” nature of the 2008 Burma Constitution, the letter by three opposition groups directed to Webb and questioning his decision to visit Burma held but the latest indications of an opposition anchored to an irreconcilable, absolutist project. Constitutional perfection, as remarked upon by Thomas Jefferson, is a project in futility – which is far from saying that the constitutional process is not just that, an evolutionary cycle demanding of regular reassessment in the construction of a better constitution than the last.

What is urgently needed from Burma’s opposition community is a substantive policy and strategic review, reflective of international relations and power politics as practiced, respective of existing avenues of communication and sensitive to the fact that the means to the end demands flexibility in order to maximize the chance of success.

Austere adherence to doctrinal rigidity – especially that premised on dubious assumptions – is ultimately a sign of weakness, not strength.