Rice, rights and nuclear dreams

In early August two important developments took place in Burma, which at first glance seem unconnected but are, in fact, intrinsically linked to where Burma may be headed in the years to come. The first was US’ appointment of a special envoy to Burma who would have the rank of ambassador, and the second was Burma’s rice agreement with North Korea, which is based on a barter deal. Both these incidents signal a clear shift in terms of how the international community views and will engage with Burma.

The rice agreement may not seem significant but underlying the deal is the Burmese government’s growing demand for nuclear technology. While Burma claims that it seeks nuclear know-how for peaceful purposes, the country’s continued isolation and its close ties with North Korea (whose clandestine nuclear programme is already a cause for
worry), are likely to trigger reactions among the nuclear nations.
For North Korea the rice deal is a lifeline the country’s reclusive political elite desperately needs. With changing dynamics in the region, North Korea is keen to be free of its dependence on China. Importing rice from Burma will give North Korean leaders more flexibility and also address the issue of severe food shortage.
Since 2007, isolated and impoverished Burma and North Korea have been entering into deals for closer cooperation. As two countries which have been shunned by the international community, their interdependence grew and is now becoming a cause for concern. In fact, Burma’s isolation had made the junta very paranoid towards most countries, except China and North Korea. But with regional countries now trying to ensure that Burma does not go the North Korea route, this is changing.
The appointment of a special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell, who will officially coordinate the US and Burma’s relations, is an important shift in America’s policy towards Burma. For a country that has for decades followed a policy of stridently calling for sanctions against Burma, this is a huge step forward. The Clinton and Bush regimes followed the sanctions policy against Burma to little positive effect. It only pushed Burma closer to China.
The Obama administration has taken a different stand. While the US’ earlier sanctions policy had the objective of regime change, the current policy under Obama is to push the process of political reforms.
The changed US position became evident as early as 2009, even though it took more than two years for concrete action. This change became possible after the Burmese government expressed willingness to effect political reforms.
The Obama administration has spoken of “pragmatic engagement” with Burma, an approach based on a principled combination of sanctions and engagement. But given the lost ground as a result of sanctions, the US needs to be flexible and open. It must be willing to accommodate Burma’s political class and seek reform in a slow and sustained manner. The first step towards this should be normalisation of ties.
The preconditions for normalisation of ties are the issues of political prisoners, human rights violations and Burma’s adherence to the UN non-proliferation requirements. The possibility of Burma going down North Korea’s nuclear route is worrisome. Intense isolation leaves few friends and dependence on recalcitrant states like North Korea only pushes a country backwards.
Given the US’ strong non-proliferation agenda, the nuclear technology issue will be a critical factor in pushing engagement. And political reforms and human rights may indeed become the camouflage under which hard security decisions are encouraged. To achieve this, the US will have to learn to balance on the fault-lines evident in the region, including hard-line posturing by China and its allies.
With Asean still playing a significant diplomatic role in maintaining regional peace through its informal approach, the tug of war on Burma will be crucial for the region. Given that the US has made significant headway in its policy shift, it would, perhaps, be best to let Burma be the Asean chair in 2014. The pace of political reform in Burma is painfully slow, but its engagement with the international community can act as a catalyst. The willingness of the Burmese government to be more open to international engagement, and therefore act responsibly when holding the Asean chair, may be the most effective restraining order

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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