Ten years after a Burma became a pariah state by crushing a pro-democracy uprising, engagement and isolation strategies to promote human rights have both failed, Human Rights Watch said today. A decade after the August 8, 1988 crackdown, the military still has a stranglehold on power, human rights abuses are rampant, and the economy is in a tailspin. Human Rights Watch is calling for a new, multilateral policy that would include the following elements:

  • recognition that the three key actors that will determine Burma's future are the army (Tatmadaw); the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi; and the ethnic minority organizations, some of which are armed, along Burma's borders with Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh. A new policy would have to involve communication with all three. Communication with the army, however, should not be seen as in any way legitimating its role.
  • recognition that coordination and establishment of common ground is necessary among Western donors, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and China. President Clinton and EU leaders in particular could make good use of improved relations with China to actively engage China in finding a solution to the Burma impasse.
  • development of a road map by which specific steps toward verifiable human rights improvements on all fronts would gradually lead to incremental restoration of normal economic and diplomatic relations with the international community.

It is not difficult to show the failure of current policies. There are today an estimated 1,300 political prisoners in Burma's jails; over 1 million internally displaced persons, mainly in ethnic minority areas; some 200,000 refugees in neighboring countries, including Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and China; and at least 800,000 illegal migrant workers in Thailand alone, with several thousand more in Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The public health and education sectors have all but collapsed, with the average per capita spending on health in 1996 a mere $0.50 per annum, while universities, closed for over three years from June 1988 to May 1991, then again from December 1991 to May 1992, were closed again after student demonstrations in December 1996 and have still not reopened.

The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, has been decimated by arrests and intimidation. A series of draconian regulations and laws has made it legally impossible for any form of civil society to emerge. The use of forced labor, one of the most widely condemned practices of the Burmese government, has not abated but appears to have increased with the collapse of the economy and of neighboring Asian economies that drew Burmese migrant workers abroad. Like forced labor, a program of forced relocation of ethnic minority villages for purposes of "internal security" has helped fuel the exodus of refugees to Thailand and Bangladesh. State promotion of Buddhism has played on existing communal tensions between ethnic Burmans, who are largely Buddhists, and minorities, who are mostly either Muslim or Christian.

The only real achievement of the government known until November 1997 as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and since then as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has been the conclusion of cease-fire agreements with various ethnic insurgencies along Burma's borders. These agreements, which have lowered the level of actual fighting, have yet to develop into lasting political solutions, however, and they have come at an enormous price. In Shan State especially, they have been followed by an explosion of heroin production, as the government appears to have offered to turn a blind eye to the rebels' narcotics trade in exchange for a cease-fire. In other areas, the agreements have been preceded by major military offensives that have caused untold suffering to the civilian population and resulted in massive refugee outflows.

These developments have benefited no one, neither ASEAN with its policies of engagement nor Europe and the U.S. with their policies of sanctions. China may have benefited the most by taking advantage of the situation to become Burma's major arms supplier and one of its largest trading partners, but even China has been hurt by the drug and HIV explosion along its southern border and Burma's growing economic problems.

Ten years on, it is therefore time for a major reassessment of policy towards Burma. A new policy must include:

  • efforts to understand the nature of the three key actors in Burmese politics. The West knows and admires Aung San Suu Kyi; unlike Japan or the ASEAN countries, it knows little about the nature and ideology of the Burmese armed forces, the various actors in the military leadership, and the tensions within this consensus-driven government. The armed ethnic minority groups who between them command over 65,000 troops and control some of the most potentially profitable land in the country _ as well as some of them being producers of most of the world's heroin supply _ are even less well known and understood.
  • increased communication with all three actors. The U.S., for example, should now consider sending an ambassador to Rangoon, and ASEAN diplomats should continue their efforts to engage both the military and the democratic opposition.
  • a real effort at multilateralism. Since 1990, the key multilateral initiative has involved the passing of consensus resolutions at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights condemning human rights abuses in Burma and calling on the military to change its ways; since 1991 the U.N. General Assembly has also passed similar resolutions. Each year the resolutions get tougher, and each year Burmese leaders denounce them as "interference" in Burma's internal affairs and refuse to implement them. These resolutions would be far more useful if they were understood by all as not being merely an annual exercise in condemnation but as the basis for establishing the benchmarks for Burma's acceptance back into the international fold. The upcoming meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September might be a good opportunity for the key parties interested in Burma, including China, to come together to discuss a coordinated strategy.

Finally, a road map needs to be laid out that would specify clearly how concrete steps toward the ending of forced labor, release of political prisoners, restoration of basic civil rights, and international access to border areas, among other measures, could lead progressively to a lifting of sanctions currently in place and a resumption of normal political and economic ties between Burma and the major industrialized countries.

Without a new policy, the next ten years in Burma may be no different than the last.