Features | Security | Southeast Asia

From Burma Road to Road Map

Concerns over Burma’s ties with North Korea and China have prompted the US to sit up and take notice of the country. But it needs a road map.

By Patrick M. Cronin for

The last time Burma really mattered to the United States, Imperial Japanese forces were marching on Asia. Vinegar Joe Stillwell built a road through the Burmese jungle to resupply China during the Pacific War, a backbreaking project that cost the lives of some 1,100 US soldiers before its completion in 1944. The Stillwell Road was pivotal then, but just like American interest in Burma, it soon fell into disrepair. 

Burma matters to US strategy again. Human rights concerns about the military grip on the region’s poorest country are overshadowed by geostrategic concerns about the regime’s ties to China and North Korea. China’s desire for strategic real estate and hunger for natural resources are turning Burma into a proxy state, while North Korea’s weapons export business shifts Burma into a potential nuclear weapon state. Beijing has recently reconstructed the old British and American Burma Road.

The Obama administration has responded by naming an ambassadorial-level coordinator: Derek Mitchell, presently acting assistant secretary of defence. But what’s next? US Burma policy is notoriously feckless. Well-intentioned support for the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, the last democratically elected leader, makes for a photo opportunity, but is failing to affect Burmese bad behaviour or constrain Chinese encroachment. In the past, an almost exclusive focus on human rights has done little to change Burma, but a great deal to isolate the United States from its allies and friends in South and East Asia.

A new approach is needed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the essential first step last month in Bali by giving further definition to the policy of principled engagement.  She demanded compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, a reference to the regime’s nuclear ambitions. She also called for releasing 2,200 political prisoners and opening dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minorities. But given the administration’s determination to reenergize US influence in a vibrant region, it’s noteworthy that Clinton put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on notice not to bestow on Burma chairmanship for 2014 unless it earns it. At the same time, she in effect dangled the carrot of international legitimacy should Burma embrace change.

The gap between Burma and the United States yawns. We therefore need a road map for navigating between the Scylla of human rights and Charybdis of realpolitik. The original Burma Road overcame gnarly mountainous terrain; a new road map must traverse seemingly intractable machinations emanating from the new palatial capital in Naypyidaw. The first road linked Burma to China; this pathway must provide both an alternative to Chinese domination, as well as greater freedom for all Burma’s people.  Gen. Stillwell built the first road; Clinton must connect this one.

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There’s precedent for building US ties with an adversarial, autocratic state: Vietnam. In fact, some of the same voices who would like to test Burma’s seriousness about a new relationship have experience with this kind of challenge. Senators John McCain and John Kerry helped to convert a former enemy into a flourishing economic and security partner, despite nagging differences over human rights. If a US Navy destroyer can make a port visit to Da Nang, Vietnam (as USS John S. McCain did last year), then finding a gradual opening to Burma must be possible.    

While the administration’s policy of talking with sanctions in place has achieved no breakthrough, experts on the ground see a glimmer of hope. Although the National League for Democracy was proscribed from competing in elections last autumn, Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and a nominally civilian government has opened the dialogue beyond a single general. And recently, the Labour and Social Welfare Minister of Myanmar met face to face with Suu Kyi and suggested a new dialogue with the opposition. In addition, although few prisoners have been released, the regime has allowed International Red Cross basic sanitation inspections of jails, while nongovernmental organizations are being permitted to expand some of their presence. Indeed, the US Agency for International Development is starting to fund indigenous civil society programmes that could establish influential new voices in Burma. 

The next step for the administration should be to back a track two process to help draft a workable road map. As part of the road map, we should harness the power of our business community in gradually opening up Burma. Rather than simply allow Chinese state owned enterprises to monopolize the market on Burmese oil and gas, timber, and gems, as well as new infrastructure projects, the United States should hold out the incentive of US business investment in exchange for political reforms. One day, after many small steps and future reforms, coupled with close coordination with key allies and partners, the United States could be in a far better position to normalize relations with Burma.   

The roadmap may fail. Further revelations about a nuclear weapon programme or future attempts by North Korean cargo ships to deliver missile warheads should trigger some of the penalties that Clinton intimated in Bali. This isn’t the first time Burma has hinted at reform, but in light of shifting geostrategic circumstances it’s critical to test the veracity of what Burmese leaders are telling top US officials about desiring better relations. Even an out-of-touch regime may have heard of the Arab Spring. As McCain said after his visit last month, ‘Governments that shun evolutionary reforms now will eventually face revolutionary change later.’

This much is clear: as with Vietnam, ultimately Burmese must take the first step. If they mean what they say, then a road map may well be the solution. It would allow bipartisan support for any administration’s desire to do what every American should want: effective responses to human misery and geostrategic interests.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin directs the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.