Key Points

  • The SLORC military junta is a world-class human rights abuser condemned by the UN every year since 1989.
  • Foreign investors continue to play a critical role in providing financial backing for SLORC.
  • SLORC continues to refuse to recognize the results of the 1990 elections, overwhelmingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Springing from obscurity to America’s editorial pages, college campuses, city councils, and state legislatures, Burma has emerged as a major foreign policy issue. A nonaligned, economically autarkic, one-party state under harsh military rule since 1962, Burma has metamorphosed into a test case for action on several fronts: human rights in Southeast Asia, international trade relations and the World Trade Organization (WTO), the growing worldwide heroin epidemic, and the role of foreign investors in supporting dictatorships. Part of the reason is that many observers view Burma as nothing less than a fight between good and evil. On one side is the democracy movement led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of modern Burma’s founding father. On the other is a military junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The fight even encompasses the name of the country: the democracy movement calls it Burma, while SLORC insists on Myanmar.

SLORC came to power in September 1988 by commanding the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) to smash a nationwide democracy movement, which it did by gunning down more than 3,000 protesters in Rangoon and thousands more in smaller cities and towns. The latest UN Commission on Human Rights resolution criticized SLORC for “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, death in custody, torture, arbitrary and politically motivated arrest and detention, absence of due process of law, severe restrictions on freedom of opinion, expression, movement, assembly, and association, including portering for the military.” President Clinton’s order imposing sanctions against Burma cited SLORC’s “deepening pattern of severe repression” against the democracy movement.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC)—SLORC’s closest ally and primary diplomatic and financial supporter—has included $1.8 billion in military equipment for SLORC’s military modernization drive. The Tatmadaw aims to field a 500,000-man army, one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Western and Asian multinationals have moved to strike deals with the generals who control Southeast Asia’s most resource-rich country. American corporations led by energy companies like Texaco, Unocal, and Arco were among the first foreign companies to invest in SLORC-controlled Burma. Most foreign investments are made with government ministries or entities like the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), controlled by active-duty and retired military officers.

Attempting to legitimize its rule, SLORC organized a multiparty election on May 27, 1990. Despite restrictions on key opposition political leaders, the move turned out to be a huge miscalculation. Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide, taking 392 of 485 seats in the Parliament. The official military party won just 10 seats. SLORC refused to honor the results of the election and began a systematic effort to destroy the NLD. Currently, 24 NLD MPs are serving long-term jail sentences, 68 MPs have been dismissed by SLORC, 43 have been forced to resign, three MPs have died in prison, and another 28 are in exile. In November 1996, Suu Kyi was the target of a rock-throwing, baton- swinging mob organized by SLORC and an affiliated organization—the Union and Solidarity Development Association (USDA)—that Suu Kyi has compared to Hitler’s brownshirts.

SLORC has consolidated control over ethnic areas long outside the effective authority of any previous central government. Employing the infamous “Four Cuts” strategy designed to cut off insurgents from food, funds, intelligence, and recruits, the Tatmadaw’s scorched-earth tactics have been as effective as they have been devastating. The coercive relocations of hundreds of villages have turned ethnic areas into free-fire zones in which heavily armed SLORC battalions, using civilians as forced porters and minesweepers, have wreaked havoc. Over 100,000 refugees have fled to Thailand, where (without UN recognition) they remain vulnerable to forcible repatriation by the Thai army. SLORC continues to vilify Suu Kyi as a foreigner (her husband is British) and to call for the annihilation of “destructive elements,” a code phrase for the NLD.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • The Clinton administration’s recent embrace of economic sanctions arose from political pressure by Congress and grassroots activists.
  • The current U.S. sanctions are inadequate because they only ban new investments, allowing most existing projects to continue unimpeded. Yet the administration opposes selective purchasing initiatives enacted by individual U.S.states and towns.
  • Burma accounts for over 60% of the heroin on America’s streets, and evidence points to complicity in trafficking by SLORC.

In 1995, worsening human rights conditions prompted a bipartisan coalition led by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to press for immediate, mandatory economic sanctions against Burma. Suu Kyi and the NLD supported this move, but the effort did not please the White House or the State Department, both intent on preserving diplomatic flexibility. The McConnell amendment failed under the weight of presidential opposition and business lobbying after the White House encouraged Senators Cohen (R-ME) and Feinstein (D-CA) to formulate a compromise with plenty of loopholes. The resulting economic sanctions only banned new U.S. investment and required presidential initiative.

The predictable attitude of the Clinton administration backing into a tough Burma policy rather than leading was that of a reluctant participant. Following the arrests of hundreds of student demonstrators in December 1996, Suu Kyi called for the imposition of sanctions. As Texaco and Arco signed contracts giving SLORC millions in “signing fees,” the U.S. dallied in response to what even U.S. diplomats described as the “rolling repression” in Rangoon. Even with a notorious human rights abuser like SLORC, with whom the U.S. has fairly minimal commercial ties (total bilateral trade in 1996 was $139.8 million), the inherent inclination of the Clinton administration to encourage trade was difficult to overcome.

Only in April 1997, when displeasure on Capitol Hill was again heating up, did the Clinton administration finally announce its intentions to fulfill the letter of the law. A flurry of business deals took place as another month passed before an executive order was issued to implement the sanctions. Employing presidential statutory authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), the order bans investment, actions to facilitate investment (including that by foreign nationals), and attempts to evade the prohibitions. But all investment contracts signed before May 21, 1997 are legal. In an attempt to hold U.S. business accountable, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) in conjunction with Burmese dissidents has filed a lawsuit against Unocal for human rights violations stemming from its partnership with SLORC.

U.S. grassroots activists have recognized that real economic pressure lies in using U.S. market power as a purchaser of products to effect change. Selective purchasing campaigns to convince states, cities, and towns to pass laws prohibiting the purchase of goods and services from American and foreign companies operating in Burma have now passed in Massachusetts and 14 cities, including New York City, San Francisco, and Oakland. Selective purchasing bills have been introduced in the legislatures of Connecticut, Texas, and California. The European Union (EU) has called these measures WTO-illegal and in mid-July 1997 initiated consultations with the U.S. that could lead to proceedings before a WTO dispute panel. Rather than supporting trade restrictions on moral or national security grounds (as it has done with Cuba), the Clinton administration has pressured state regulators to reconsider and has intimated that the states are violating agreements signed by the U.S. Trade Representative.

This reluctance is even harder to understand now that it is clear that SLORC is profiting from collaboration with narcotraffickers. The State Department’s top antinarcotics official concludes, “SLORC has been part of the problem, not the solution.” Another State Department report notes that in 1996, Burma’s “export of opiates alone appear to be worth as much as all legal exports.” The U.S. government estimates that 60% of the heroin on America’s streets is Burmese. Burma’s banks can accept foreign currency deposits of any size with no questions asked, as long as a 10% tax is paid. But the Clinton administration has failed to formulate a regional strategy to combat the narcotics that threaten both the U.S. and Burma’s neighbors.

The U.S. policy to urge wider support for economic sanctions has also been weak. A public announcement of efforts to lobby the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) played into the hands of those who contend that outsiders shouldn’t dictate to ASEAN, making a tough sell even tougher. More importantly, the U.S. has failed to make support for sanctions a major issue with potential colleagues Australia, Canada, and key European nations. As a result, the ASEAN policy of constructive engagement toward SLORC, primarily composed of commercial links and noninterference in politics, has not been significantly challenged by the wider international community. ASEAN even decided to assuage Burma’s international pariah status by accepting it as an ASEAN member in July 1997.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • The U.S. needs to expand efforts to delegitimize SLORC internationally and must work with allies to apply economic and political pressure on the junta.
  • The U.S. should ensure that ASEAN understands that admitting Burma as a member will have strong negative impacts on certain aspects of U.S.-ASEAN relations.
  • The U.S. should defend “selective purchasing” initiatives against international pressure branding these measures as illegal under the WTO.

ASEAN’s decision to admit Burma as a member creates important policy challenges for the U.S., the EU, and ASEAN. Encouraged by ASEAN recognition, SLORC may assume a freer hand in cracking down on its internal opponents. Yet student demonstrations in December 1996, riots in Mandalay (Burma’s second largest city) in March, and NLD resistance in May indicate that SLORC is trying to keep the lid on a population that is passionate in its opposition to military rule.

U.S. policy correctly urges an internal tripartite dialogue (as advocated by the unprecedented Mae Tha Raw Hta agreement) in which representatives of all of Burma’s ethnic groups called for talks between SLORC, the NLD, and ethnic leaders. This call, echoed by the international community, has fallen on deaf ears. Washington lacks the unilateral leverage to persuade the recalcitrant SLORC to come to the table. The U.S. needs to pursue a two-track strategy of seeking to more thoroughly delegitimize the SLORC regime internationally while devising a mix of incentives and penalties to prod ASEAN to strive for a regime change in Burma.

ASEAN members fear that browbeating SLORC will simpy enhance China’s influence in Burma. But ASEAN fails to differentiate between the regime and the people of Burma. Highly dependent on China’s arms, trade, and support at the UN, SLORC has already placed its bets. It has granted the PRC access to the Indian Ocean and has signed a military-training agreement for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to train 300 Burmese officers. But these actions have further diminished SLORC’s legitimacy.

Among the Burmese, there is widespread suspicion and fear of China, which was the imperial power in the region until Western colonization in the mid-1800s. Recently an influx of Chinese businessmen from Yunnan province into the northern city of Mandalay together with a flood of cheap Chinese exports forcing local crafts people and producers out of business have increased anti-Chinese sentiment.

New Chinese initiatives and alliances with the SLORC have also angered many Burmese while indicating a move away from the rigorous nonalignment that has characterized modern Burmese foreign policy. In dealing with ASEAN, the U.S. should be proactive in addressing concerns about rising PRC influence in Burma while pointing out that a democratic Burmese government with popular support would have little incentive to continue SLORC’s special relationship with the PRC. The U.S. could stress to ASEAN that Burma as an independent ally (rather than a Chinese client regime) would no doubt be preferable in internal ASEAN councils. If ASEAN wishes to continue its “constructive engagement” policy with Burma, it should be willing to establish clear indicators of progress toward political dialogue such as the end of human rights abuses and the beginning of discussions with the democratic forces led by the NLD.

Washington must develop a comprehensive strategy to further delegitimize SLORC in the international arena. The U.S. should call a session of the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Burma’s continued failure to transfer power to the winners of the 1990 election, forcing China to protect its client on the international stage (and further undermining SLORC’s independence). Washington should warn ASEAN that it will not cooperate with an SLORC-led Burma in ASEAN’s councils. Partly out of concern of Chinese strategic objectives in the region, many ASEAN countries favor continuing strong U.S. military links with the region. The U.S. could let it known that strong ASEAN support for SLORC would jeopardize these U.S. military links. In particular, the U.S. should use this pressure and other types of policy leverage to discourage any further warming of relations between Burma and Thailand. The U.S. should urge Thailand to allow UN Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) access to refugees on the Thai-Burmese border, and Washington should provide the necessary extra funding at the UN to make this effort possible.

The U.S. should continue its policy of blocking loans and assistance to Burma from the World Bank/IMF and should pressure the Asian Development Bank to hold the line as well. Congress should finish its job and pass immediate bilateral sanctions to close the new-investment loophole of the Cohen-Feinstein amendment. On the local level, the U.S. government should accede to the oncoming wave of more democratic, grassroots participation in foreign policy and immediately cease efforts to discourage selective purchasing by states and cities. The Clinton administration should inform the EU that the U.S. will use the issues of drugtrafficking and Chinese domination to claim a legitimate national security exemption at the WTO.

Finally, the U.S. must widen the international coalition against SLORC. It must make the argument that the impact of the flood of heroin and cheap amphetamines from Burma affects not only the U.S. but neighboring Asian countries as well. HIV/AIDS is out of control in Burma, spread by the regular intravenous drug use of 4% of Burma’s male population. The Burmese drug crisis affects Thailand too. According to Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, 750,000 Burmese are now residing in Thailand.

Different nations can play different roles in interacting with SLORC, as Japan and the U.S. already do in a good cop, bad cop routine. But the U.S. must use its influence in the international community to promote a comprehensive policy of economic pressure and political persuasion that will result in negotiations leading to a restoration of democratic rule in Burma based on the results of the 1990 elections.

by Philip S. Robertson Jr., Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies