Reader Challenge: Do Burma’s Generals Just Need a Little Love and Understanding?

In Sanctioning Disaster (the June Guernica magazine) author Joel Whitney writes that Obama’s policy on Burma “has something for everyone. It’s a hodgepodge of baby-step diplomacy, self-righteous threats, and crippling economic sanctions.” He then interviews Morten Pedersen, “a Burma scholar lurking in the bibliography of a lot of Burma policy books,” who “insists that the sanctions . . . are undermining [President Obama's] diplomacy. Oh, and starving the Burmese.”

According to Pedersen, Whitney writes, “the most dire rights violation he found was crushing poverty.” Pedersen himself expands on that.

People especially in the U.S., are quick to say, “If you’re not sanctioning then you are doing ASEAN-style engagement, which is commercial engagement.” The kind of engagement I’m talking about is what I term “principle engagement,” … the entire range of human rights, not just political and civil rights, but also socioeconomic rights. [Besides] it is not possible to target sanctions; because if you target them to hurt the generals, they can pass it on [and] deflect it.

Whitney again:

But such an approach would seem anathema to a Congress that prioritizes condemnation and punishment of the generals over the well being of the people of Burma.

Meanwhile, Pedersen doesn’t think that . . .

[Assistant Secretary of State] Kurt Campbell flying into the capital, talking about how they should conduct the elections [is] gonna lead anywhere. … We simply don’t have the means, the leverage, to change a country like that in the dramatic ways that we tend to focus on. … But we do know that conversations about economic policy . . . from time to time have an impact and lead to changes in governance.

But what exactly (their personal wealth aside) is uppermost in the generals’ minds? Pedersen explains.

You need to accept that national security, as the generals define it, is their key concern. … So when you engage with them you need to. … frame your conversations in a way that . . . accepts that there are security concerns that are legitimate. [Emphasis added.]

Then maybe it can be demonstrated to them, says Pedersen, that . . .

. . . other countries in Southeast Asia have also faced risks [to] their country [such as rebellion or civil war]. Rather than addressing that problem militarily like the Burmese have done, [those other countries] have addressed it economically by pushing economic growth and spreading it to provinces.

Do Focal Points readers agree with interview-er and -ee that human rights are, in large part, economic well-being and that it makes more sense to engage with the generals — odious as they are — rather than beat the dead sanctions horse?