David Scott Mathieson

It's a standard academic sleight of hand to win an argument by misrepresenting your opponents position. Professor David Steinberg applies this maneuver in his recent piece on Myanmar A foolish consistency (Asia Times Online, August 13, 2011). Steinberg borrows a famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in Self Reliance that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines," yet never admits to his own propensity for foolish consistency.

Far from presenting two sides to a complex debate on strategies of international engagement with Myanmar, the author misleads readers with polemical critiques. Steinberg contends that calls for increased United States sanctions and the formation of a United Nations-led Commission of Inquiry into allegations of widespread human-rights violations in Myanmar are designed to derail the promise of reforms emanating from the new government elected in November 2010, or more precisely, the March 30 inaugural speech by the new president Thein Sein.

Steinberg grudgingly concedes that "major human-rights violations [in Myanmar] ... are apparent." He then portrays the calls for their cessation and the push for an investigation as a "Western policy orthodoxy". He argues that calls for enhanced sanctions measures and a UN formed Commission of Inquiry are "confrontational approaches" that seek to further isolate the new government.

He suggests that "(c)onspiratorial theorists" are using these measures to thwart the possibility of reform, in order to provoke more "chaos" and depravation and a violent overthrow of military rule, which will ensure the transfer to a civilian government, ideally the National League for Democracy (NLD) which the West has long supported. However, nowhere does Steinberg name groups or individuals who harbor such an apocalyptic and fantastical approach.

Steinberg has reversed the orthodoxy, and cast himself as the lone voice of rationality. If anything, the prevailing Western policy view on post-election Myanmar is one of guarded trust, or resigned optimism, that the new government will gradually reform crucial sectors such as agriculture, social services, and tackle systemic corruption. Western engagement has increased in the past several years, including through high-level diplomatic visits, increased humanitarian assistance, and as Steinberg concedes, by a more conciliatory approach by the US.

Yet what he fails to admit is that many Western governments publicly state that their efforts have been largely rebuffed, or postponed, by Myanmar authorities. Kurt Campbell, the Under Secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, has publicly expressed his frustration at the lack of reciprocity by the Myanmar government to Washington's change of approach.

The appointment of Derek Mitchell as the first US policy envoy on Myanmar is a welcome, if long overdue, action, but he faces enormous hurdles in improving relations with the new government. Steinberg blames the West and their "confrontational" approaches for continuing vexed relations with the Myanmar military, but he rarely concedes that the generals' intransigence is more to blame for the impasse.

Steinberg has long delved into the speculative art of Myanmar political analysis, yet his work rarely engages the broad body of documentation on human-rights violations or acknowledges that human rights promotion is a form of engagement with Myanmar authorities. This is a debilitating flaw in his policy formulations, as he looks only for positive signs of change, regardless of how small or ephemeral.

Strengthen, don't scrap, sanctions
Steinberg has long opposed US sanctions, and he is right in arguing that they haven't achieved the desired result which is an end to abuses and the genuine transition to a democratic civilian government. Where he undermines his position is by claiming that they can't, and never will, work.

He never acknowledges that the sanctions regimes imposed by the US, European Union, Australia, Canada, Switzerland and Norway, have been haphazardly applied, hardly coordinated, and hesitant to target the real sources of Myanmar military financial power. They haven't worked because they haven't been tried properly.

For example, the national budget (announced before the new government took office in March) continues to neglect health and education sectors - they receive only 1.3% and 4.5% of the budget respectively. Yet over the past several years, the military government squirreled away more than US$5 billion in natural gas revenues in offshore banks. If more sanctioning countries targeted the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), they could potentially spark a debate inside Myanmar about fiscal responsibility and meeting the basic needs of the impoverished population. But this addition was never contemplated because of European and American energy companies operating in Myanmar.

Sanctions imposed over the past 15 years need to be rethought, not just to make them more effective, but to reflect changes in the Myanmar economy and the military's control of key sectors. The system of military monopolies through their holding companies has markedly declined in the past decade, and the economy is now controlled by a rising class of oligarchs who benefit from close ties to senior military officers, either for awarding contracts, accessing lucrative natural resources, or acting as middlemen for foreign arms purchases.

One of the major tycoons involved as a middleman in bilateral Myanmar and Chinese investment is Steven Law, head of the Asia World Company, whom the George W Bush administration placed on its targeted sanctions list for Myanmar, and has long been on US counter-narcotics lists.

Is Steinberg suggesting that individuals such as Law should not be subject to financial restrictions, despite abundant evidence of drug trafficking and funding military projects? Observers such as Steinberg laud Thein Sein's speech for his reference to "clean government" and tackling corruption, but he refrains from pointing out what everyone in Myanmar knows: pervasive corruption benefits the military and their business cronies.

Instead of summarily dismissing sanctions, Steinberg might want to critique their efficacy, which would prove valuable in the debate of how they are imposed. Instead, he just says they drive the Myanmar military further into isolation. If this is the case, why do so many Myanmar officials call for the repeal of sanctions so prominently? Could it be that sanctions are inhibiting the ability of the privileged class of officials and oligarchs and their families to maximize their profits and deepen their control of the economy?

Justice, not revenge
Steinberg misrepresents the call for a UN Commission of Inquiry. Calls for a high-level inquiry have been voiced for years, from the UN, a Harvard Law School report endorsed by five eminent jurists including Judge Richard Goldstone, and numerous non-governmental organizations. The current proposal did not stem from activist "orthodoxy", but from a recommendation by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2010.

To date, 16 countries have publicly affirmed their support for the establishment of an inquiry, as have two of Quintana's predecessors, a host of Nobel Prize winners, many Myanmar political opposition organizations, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This isn't orthodoxy; it's a principled call seeking an end to impunity for serious violations of international law.

Steinberg is fueling the erroneous perception that the proposal is designed to target just the Myanmar military, when a commission of inquiry would investigate all parties to the conflict and alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. It would first establish the facts of the conflict and map out patterns of abuses and perpetrators, and then make recommendations. It is not a covert push for an International Criminal Court investigation. As Suu Kyi herself has said, she supports an inquiry, not a tribunal.

Steinberg hardly acknowledges the fundamental role that state violence, coercion and fear play in the daily routine of many people's lives in Myanmar. He avoids mentioning any details of these "apparent" violations. Increased counter-insurgency operations this year in Karen, Shan and Kachin states have displaced some 50,000 people, with reports of direct attacks against civilians, torture, use of sexual violence against women and young girls, and other brutally commonplace features of Myanmar military practices.

It is anything but a "foolish consistency" to seek to end the suffering of the victims of the country's long running civil war past and present, the ongoing abuses resulting from intensive militarization in ethnic areas, and the systematic state persecution of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority in western Myanmar.

Even new president Thein Sein in his March 30 speech voiced concerns over the "hell of untold miseries" that people living in conflict areas have endured for decades. The information minister Kyaw Hsan, in a press conference in August, reportedly broke down emotionally when discussing development initiatives in border conflict areas, which is either an acknowledgement of the abuses perpetrated in the war, a guilty conscience, or mere crocodile tears.

What many detractors of the commission of inquiry proposal ignore is the role that such a commission played in increasing the engagement of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Myanmar to tackle the widespread and systemic use of forced labor. That inquiry, released in 1998, paved the way for high-level talks between the ILO and military government, the official banning of all forced labor in 1999, the establishment of a permanent ILO office in Yangon (Rangoon), and a supplementary understanding reached in 2007 that permits the ILO to investigate cases of forced labor and child soldier recruitment.

The efforts of the ILO are widely acknowledged as a model of principled international interaction with the Myanmar authorities, and official forced labor complaints to the ILO continue to increase. The effect has been a marked decrease in the use of forced labor by officials in urban and rural Myanmar over the past 10 years. But as the ILO makes clear, the practice of the Myanmar army has not improved at all.

Take, for instance, the post-election pattern of abuses. In January 2011, the Myanmar military drew an estimated 700 convicted criminals from more than 12 prisons in central Myanmar to carry supplies as conflict porters for intensified fighting against ethnic Karen rebels.

The ex-porters I interviewed spoke of how soldiers forced them to walk first through heavily mined areas, summarily executed wounded porters, and tortured porters deemed to break the harsh rules. This is not a recent phenomenon, but a routine practice by the Myanmar military. In short, the optimism of post-election reforms does not extend to the conflict zones, which demonstrates not just the disregard of the military to its own citizens, but is also reflective of the lack of new thinking by the central government in dealing with ethnic disunity.

Eyes open engagement
Steinberg is asking for people to wait and see what comes of the new government, and hope for positive change to blossom. But proponents of a commission of inquiry know that abuses are occurring, and an inquiry is one proposal to seek an end to them. Sanctions are not working, and will never work on their own, but can be made more effective if the sanctioning countries coordinate and calibrate their efforts. Neither sanctions nor justice are being used as threats against the new government, and if Steinberg seriously believes they are being wielded as destructive tools then he is not paying much attention to the real messages he so easily distorts.

Steinberg argues that outsiders do not have a moral right to tell Myanmar citizens to rise up to resist the regime. And he's right. We don't. But outsiders also don't have a right to tell the country's citizens, as Steinberg does, that their "immediate well-being ... should take precedence over the possible and unknown long-term improvement of their lot". In other words, that they should accept the injustice they face in their daily lives and their disenfranchisement from politics, and focus instead on improving their material well being, which the new government might be willing to allow, rather than confronting the government in ways that bring a violent response.

This is a choice that some people in Myanmar will make, of course. And we should not judge them for it. But a great many others would be profoundly offended to hear a foreigner tell them that they should choose bread over freedom. As would most South Africans under apartheid, Poles under communism, French citizens under the Vichy government, and so on and so on. What Steinberg doesn't understand is human nature. People don't want to live the way the government makes people live in Myanmar. They value their dignity, not just their material well being. Often they are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former. And while we can't tell them they must do that, it is foolish to base public policy on an expectation that they won't.

Even if Steinberg were right in principle that if everyone played along with the Myanmar military for the next decade, avoiding confrontation, and encouraging reformist tendencies, in practice a great many Myanmar citizens are simply not going to play along.

Ethnic minorities are unlikely to sit back and take the abuse they are getting and give up their militias and sign up for the Border Guards (which is what they would do if they accepted Steinberg's "rational" approach). Some groups can be expected to fight on, even if it brings them more grief in the short run. One can also expect more acts of resistance to the government from the Myanmar population, whether small ones or large ones as in the 2007 demonstrations. And none of this will happen because outsiders encourage it; it will come from within Myanmar society.

There is a nastier undertone to Steinberg's piece in his cynical denial of the role that justice can play in authoritarian transitions. He does so in order to see the bright side of possibility, not the dark side of reality. This is why his call for "do no harm" in Western policy formulation appears so simple: he is really saying "do nothing".

David Scott Mathiesonis a Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.