US fine-tunes outreach as Myanmar votes

Last Updated: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 11:36

Washington: As Myanmar moves ahead with a controversial election on Sunday, the United States is trying to fine-tune its policy -- maintaining dialogue with the military regime, but also stepping up pressure.

President Barack Obama`s administration has made engagement a signature principle of its foreign policy and last year initiated talks with the junta, hoping to nudge Myanmar out of its isolation.

The Obama administration has openly acknowledged its disappointment. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is holding its first elections in 20 years on Sunday despite the marginalisation of ethnic minorities and the opposition, including detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

The administration has insisted it will stick to its engagement policy, saying that a previous policy focused on punishment had failed and that the outside world needs contacts in the reclusive country at a critical time.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month also threw US support behind a proposal to set up a UN-backed commission into alleged crimes against humanity by the regime, which rights groups say has systematically destroyed ethnic minority villages and used rape as a weapon of war.

Myanmar watchers say that the administration always kept open the option of supporting a UN probe but did not have an internal consensus, with some officials fearing it would set back the engagement policy.

"It took the administration a while to accept that they were not going to be able to influence this election very much," said John Dale, an expert on Myanmar at George Mason University.

"This seems like a change in policy. But I think that the administration always had both in mind and worried that they might be contradictory," he said.

Human rights activists have long pressed for the UN inquiry, which could potentially lead to an international warrant for Myanmar`s leaders, and have urged the United States to make its support for the probe more than rhetorical.

But Suzanne DiMaggio, director of policy studies at the Asia Society, said that a commission of inquiry risked backfiring.

"We really don`t know what kind of changes will take place after the election, if any. This doesn`t seem like the right time to pursue this in earnest," said DiMaggio, who heads an Asia Society task force on US policy toward Myanmar.

DiMaggio said the United States had limited options on Myanmar and that the engagement policy "should not only move forward, but it should be stepped up”.

"One thing we know for sure is that it`s not going to be a free or fair election. But the larger question is will there be opportunities to exploit after the election and to press the new government toward better governance," she said.

Michael Green, an adviser to former US president George W Bush who was nominated to be the US special envoy on Myanmar, said the Obama team`s message has been muddled, particularly on the commission of inquiry.

Last year`s announcement of the engagement policy moved the United States closer to many Asian nations which had earlier bucked Western attempts to isolate the regime.

But Green said that the administration should have also prepared the groundwork for international pressure. He expected a divided response to the election as Western nations and Japan criticise it while India and China, which are competing for influence in Myanmar, offer a more positive spin.

"In fits and starts, the administration is ending up in the right place on Burma but I think the signals have been mixed," said Green, a scholar at Georgetown University and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"They started off positioning themselves quite well to lead the international reaction to this election," he said.

"But they`ve let the signals get confused enough that they`re now not very well positioned to deal with an election that is not going to be legitimate and that is going to end up in effect shifting the country from uniformed to un-uniformed authoritarianism," he said.

Bureau Report



First Published: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 11:36

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