JPRI Working Paper No. 114 (January 2009)
International Politics and The Mess in Myanmar
By John D. Ciorciari

Early last May, Cyclone Nargis made landfall near the Irrawaddy River delta in southern Myanmar. Although the country's reclusive leaders were warned of the impending disaster days before, they did little to protect millions of people who lay directly in harm's way. The cyclone tore through a large swathe of the country, took tens of thousands of lives, and put countless others in grave peril. To make matters worse, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) restricted foreign aid and downplayed the catastrophe to protect its domestic political position. Millions went homeless, and over 100,000 people are believed to have died.[2] Many perished unnecessarily as a direct result of the junta's callous response.

The cyclone crisis came on the heels of another calamity: the abortive “Saffron Revolution” of autumn 2007, during which Myanmar's armed forces (the tatmadaw) brutally repressed Buddhist monks and others engaged in peaceful demonstrations. These crises have shocked many international observers and led critics to accuse the junta of wanton disregard for human life, crimes against humanity, or even genocide.[3] Human rights groups and Burmese exiles have stepped up their calls for international humanitarian intervention and regime change, filling websites and editorial pages with invective for the SPDC and its leader, General Than Shwe.

While Than Shwe and his colleagues have faced widespread condemnation, the official international response to the crises has involved considerably more bark than bite. Western governments have been acutely critical of Myanmar but have stopped well shy of coercive intervention to punish or overthrow the regime. Myanmar's key Asian neighbors have been gentler, opposing intervention or even the imposition of multilateral sanctions. Institutions like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations have had little leverage—and questionable desire—to drive hard bargains with the junta.

This working paper examines some of the key political factors that have shielded General Than Shwe and his colleagues from a much tougher international response. After both the Saffron Revolution and cyclone crisis, governments in both the East and West have justified their reluctance to intervene more forcefully by invoking the norm of sovereignty. Concerns about sovereignty often do limit or delay international intervention, but sovereignty is not an impermeable shield. International actors have choices in how they interpret the norm. W hen powerful states agree on the need for dramatic change in a troubled country, they can apply a wide range of carrots and sticks to exercise their will, sometimes with and sometimes without the host government's consent. Thus, while the contorted international response to Myanmar's misbehavior results partly from the power of the norm of sovereignty, it can be explained more convincingly as a product of the contested strategic and political interest s among key states and within the relevant multilateral institutions.

What Could the International Community Do?
Governments and multilateral institutions have a range of tools for dealing with recalcitrant regimes like the one in Myanmar. At one end of the spectrum is non-threatening diplomacy, and at the other end is the decisive use of military force. In between is a range of bilateral and multilateral sanctions. Since 1990—when the armed forces nullified an election and put the victorious Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest—key Western governments have used economic sanctions as battering rams to compel change in Myanmar or squeeze the junta out of power. Most Asian governments have favored carrots instead of sticks, trying (at least ostensibly) to coax the junta into better behavior through economic engagement and diplomacy.

Since the Saffron Revolution, and especially since Cyclone Nargis, many critics of the SPDC have pushed for broader, more debilitating multilateral sanctions. Some—including the French government—have gone further, advocating armed force to deliver aid or topple the junta. The legal and normative basis for their arguments is that the international community has a “responsibility to protect” the Burmese people from the odious governance of the junta. The responsibility to protect (often called “R2P”) is a principle developed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 and endorsed in the 2005 UN World Summit Outcome document.[4] In 2006, the UN Security Council reaffirmed R2P in Resolution No. 1674.[5]

The Responsibility to Protect
R2P charges member states with preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity in their jurisdictions. If a state is unwilling or unable to carry out that responsibility, R2P obliges the international community to seek a peaceful solution. If diplomacy fails, the Security Council may authorize Chapter VII interventions as a last resort. In essence, R2P legalizes piercing the sovereign veil to protect vulnerable populations from grave human rights abuses. It is a clear challenge to the traditional formulation of the norm of sovereignty.

Applying R2P to the current crisis in Myanmar is controversial, however. Chapter VII of the UN Charter allows the Security Council to authorize force or level sanctions in cases of a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”[6] For much of the UN's history, many member states—especially in the communist bloc and Third World—interpreted that to mean that the United Nations could intervene only when a troublesome state threatened military action or launched actual attacks against another state. By limiting UN authority in that way, disfavored or vulnerable member states sought to shield themselves or their allies from unwanted international pressure. With that interpretation of international law, abuses like Myanmar's denial of aid to dying cyclone victims were clearly beyond the Security Council's reach. Since the end of the Cold War, emboldened Western governments have led an effort to broaden Chapter VII authority. They did so first by advancing the concept of “peace enforcement,” enabling the Security Council to authorize coercive intervention in some cases of domestic armed conflict. R2P takes the next step, envisioning UN intervention to prevent abuses that are not necessarily military in nature.

Barriers to Invoking R2P
Many developing countries and two key Security Council members—China and Russia—have resisted the expansion of Chapter VII authority, viewing it as the thin end of a wedge of neo-imperial Western intervention. The international consensus supporting the R2P principle is therefore fragile. It rests on a broadly shared interest in preventing certain grave international crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. As Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister and architect of the R2P principle, has argued:

If it comes to be thought that “R2P,” and in particular the sharp military end of the doctrine, is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes, then such consensus as there is in favor of the norm will simply evaporate in the global South.[7]

Numerous observers have claimed that the Burmese generals have committed crimes against humanity, first by clubbing unarmed monks and then by denying aid to cyclone victims. According to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity include certain “inhumane acts …intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health,” when those acts are “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.”[8] This definition raises several tough interpretive questions. Have Myanmar's leaders been “intentionally causing grave suffering?” Does the denial of aid constitute the type of “inhumane act” contemplated in the law? Does the junta's behavior constitute a “widespread or systematic attack”? Even with tens of thousands dead in the Irrawaddy delta, there remains significant scope for disagreement.

Evans has argued that a prima facie case exists,[9] and numerous others agree, but most non-Western governments are uncomfortable with an expanding definition of crimes against humanity. China and most of Myanmar's other Asian neighbors are apt to favor a narrower definition, fearing that if crimes against humanity encompass broad categories of abuse, their own domestic practices may one day meet the standard. Even in the unlikely event that Security Council members agree that the Myanmar government is carrying out crimes against humanity, further debates would emerge about whether to invoke Chapter VII authority. Have diplomatic means been exhausted? Are sanctions the right policy? Would force be appropriate, and would foreign countries be willing to risk lives to carry out their will?

The bottom line is this: R2P opens the possibility of UN sanctions or enforcement action against Myanmar but in no way guarantees that the Security Council will exercise that authority. Any decision to invoke UN powers under Chapter VII requires nine votes, including the votes of all five permanent members. Moreover, the ten rotating members of the Security Council are always a diverse crew. Current members include several post-colonial countries—such as Libya, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Costa Rica, and Vietnam—that are apt to view the doctrine of humanitarian intervention with significant suspicion. International law establishes certain parameters for legitimate intervention in a problematic state, but within those legal boundaries, decisions on whether and how to intervene result primarily from political agreements among key states.

What Has the International Community Done?
Despite shrill rhetoric from Western governments and activists around the world, the international community has failed to take the kinds of collective steps that would likely be needed to bring about serious political reform in Myanmar. The United States and Western European governments have certainly exacted some high-profile punitive measures, leveling vicious critiques of the SPDC and imposing one of the world's most onerous sanctions regimes. Indeed, some have argued that Myanmar has suffered unfairly harsh treatment as part of an ideologically driven Western crusade.[10] However, there has been little in the way of a coordinated, genuinely international (i.e., multilateral) effort to bring about serious change in Myanmar. Instead, a lack of agreement among the most relevant states has produced an awkward and relatively ineffective global response to the Saffron Revolution, the cyclone crisis, and more recent events.

Reaction to the Saffron Revolution
The Saffron Revolution, named after the “color revolutions” that have swept across several former Soviet states in recent years, erupted after the SPDC imposed a sharp and sudden hike in fuel prices. Initial protests were small, but they soon grew to become the largest public uprising against the SPDC since the “8-8-88” pro-democracy movement of August 1988. When the demonstrations achieved a critical mass, Myanmar's armed forces responded brutally and decisively. Soldiers and “brown-shirt” security officials of the regime's Union Solidarity and Development Association killed some protesters, arresting or detaining thousands more, and otherwise using blunt force and intimidation to re-impose control. Images of unarmed monks facing the feared tatmadaw and an appearance by the heralded Aung San Suu Kyi won the protesters immediate international media coverage and widespread moral support.

Western governments and activist groups quickly condemned Myanmar's leaders. The U.S. government tightened the bilateral sanctions that it had imposed in 2003, when the SPDC returned Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest. President George W. Bush used tough rhetoric and insisted on a political opening in Myanmar. However, China and Russia expressed “concern” but protected the junta at the UN Security Council, arguing that the crackdown was an “internal matter” and vetoing a U. S.-sponsored resolution demanding that the SPDC free its political prisoners. Without a unified Security Council, the United Nations was unable to take coercive action or exercise its potential diplomatic leverage.

The selection of Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari as the UN's special envoy to Myanmar was indicative of the UN's partial paralysis. Gambari was a relatively unthreatening figure to the SPDC with a known sympathy for the sovereignty concerns of developing countries. Than Shwe initially refused to meet Gambari or grant him access to Aung San Suu Kyi, who remained under house arrest. Eventually, the junta relented on both counts to dampen international pressure. The SPDC also appointed retired general U Aung Kyi as an official interlocutor with Aung San Suu Kyi and made some gestures of reconciliation to the Buddhist clergy. Nevertheless, Than Shwe rebuffed demands for serious political dialogue or policy reforms, and the international community did little to change his stance. At best, Gambari's engagement appears to have had little effect; at worst, it may have lessened pressure on the junta by enabling Than Shwe to go through the motions of polite diplomacy.

Most of the member states of ASEAN also responded gently to Myanmar's suppression of the Saffron Revolution. Initially, some ASEAN members appeared ready to challenge the SPDC in a serious way. Shortly after the crackdown, Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo expressed “horror” and “anger” at the SPDC's actions. He said plainly that ASEAN “had stopped trying to defend Myanmar internationally because it became no longer credible” and that ASEAN had “no choice” but to castigate the junta.[11] On September 27, 2007, Yeo gave a statement at the UN General Assembly in New York that expressed “revulsion” and, pointedly, called for a “transition to democracy.”[12] As scholar Donald Emmerson has argued, Yeo's remarks—which evidently were not cleared by other ASEAN ministers—broke from ASEAN's past insistence on the need for “reconciliation” in Myanmar.[13] By advocating a transition to democracy, Yeo implied the need for dramatic political reform. One Singaporean analyst with close ties to the Foreign Ministry raised the possibility of suspending Myanmar's ASEAN membership.[14]

A few other ASEAN officials also expressed revulsion and demanded change. A “frustrated” Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and insisted that the SPDC move toward democracy “without further delay.”[15] The Buddhist Foreign Minister of Thailand, Nitya Pibulsonggran, allegedly called the killing of monks “opprobrious” or “abhorrent” in private ASEAN meetings.[16] In Jakarta, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda also expressed concern and attributed the unrest to a “flawed democratization process” in Myanmar.[17] These critiques sounded too gentle and diplomatic to some Western audiences, but they were strikingly sharp by ASEAN's normal non-intrusive standards.

While ASEAN did not provide a united defense for the SPDC, the Association ultimately let the junta off without much more than a slap on the wrist. Thailand's Prime Minister, Gen. Surayud Chulanont, said that unless China and India engaged, “we have little influence… It will be difficult to call for radical changes.”[18] Yeo said similarly that Singapore possessed “little leverage” over developments in Myanmar and would have to rely on “moral influence as members of the ASEAN family.”[19] That moral pressure was applied softly. By November, when ASEAN was preparing for its 40th anniversary gala in Singapore, the Association was backing Gambari and again promoting “reconciliation” as opposed to democracy.[20] Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein attended ASEAN's 40th birthday festivities with little opprobrium.

Response to the Cyclone Crisis
A broadly similar situation emerged after Cyclone Nargis hit. Western governments issued biting criticisms. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Myanmar's leaders of “criminal neglect.”[21] British Prime Minister Gordon Brown described their conduct as “inhuman” and “intolerable.”[22] Both pushed the SPDC to allow international aid workers and shipments. American, European, and other ships assembled off the coast of Myanmar, ready to deliver desperately needed supplies.

When the Burmese generals held their ground, Western responses differed. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argued that if Myanmar insists on blocking foreign aid, the United Nations should authorize military intervention to deliver assistance to the afflicted areas. The United States and United Kingdom balked at that suggestion, citing concerns that many governments would condemn an intervention as a breach of sovereignty, especially in the absence of UN authorization. Gridlock on the Security Council made it highly unlikely that the West would secure UN approval for stiff multilateral sanctions or armed incursions to provide relief. China and Russia threatened to veto any such resolution.

As the crisis began to unfold, Than Shwe gave UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon a cold shoulder but paid little apparent price. In late May, the Myanmar chief relented and allowed Ban to enter the country to convene an international donor conference that raised $150 million in pledges for Myanmar. The SPDC also agreed to admit additional foreign aid workers, and Ban proclaimed a “turning point” in the crisis response. Still, many analysts have accused the UN of letting the junta off the hook too easily. Activist Maung Zarni described the diplomacy surrounding the donor conference as a “public-relations stunt” designed to defuse international pressure.[23] In practice, red tape and myriad security restrictions continued to impede effective humanitarian access. Neighboring Asian countries put even less pressure on the Burmese generals, treating the matter more as a normal issue of diplomacy. ASEAN governments have helped raise funds and provided a modest amount of relief but were generally sparing in their criticism of the SPDC.

In recent months, the junta has engaged in new acts of repression and diplomatic stonewalling. As survivors suffered through the wreckage of the cyclone, the SPDC pushed through a widely-criticized referendum that reinforced the power of the military in the government. It also effectively barred the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by house-arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, from participating in the 2010 general elections.[24] In August, the Myanmar government thumbed its nose at the United Nations, as Than Shwe refused to meet with Gambari. During the fall, human rights agencies and foreign officials reported increases in the arrests of pro-democracy activists, and in November the junta issued a series of harsh criminal sentences to a diverse group of 40 political dissidents.[25] Thus, the Myanmar regime hardly appears to be buckling or seriously accommodating international pressure to reform.

Why Hasn't the World Gotten Tougher?
To most advocates of regime change or dramatic policy reform in Myanmar, the international response has been woefully disappointing. Although the cyclone crisis has exposed the regime's failings more plainly than ever and strained its limited resources, the international community has done little to force the junta's hand or throw it out of power. The Myanmar case is a painful illustration of the limited efficacy of multilateral institutions when key national governments fail to align in support of a particular policy approach. It also shows the power of Realpolitik to trump humanitarian interests. The sections below discuss how competing national interests over Myanmar have made consensus difficult to achieve and prevented a more coherent and effective international response.

Divergent Strategic and Political Interests
Divergent strategic and political interests largely explain why key states have been unable to agree on how to address the crisis in Myanmar. While Western observers view Myanmar through the lenses of democracy and human rights, the country has much greater strategic importance to its Asian neighbors. In both military and economic terms, Myanmar occupies a contested geographic space between India, China, and the ASEAN states. Its large territory contains key overland trade routes and provides easy access to some of the region's most important sea-lanes and inland waterways. Myanmar is also a resource-rich state with vast natural gas deposits at a time when Asian markets are guzzling energy at an unprecedented pace. Thai General Soonthi Boonyaratglin, leader of the military coup in Bangkok in 2006, put the matter plainly the following year: “There are many friendly nations who help Myanmar...a country with plenty of natural resources that powerful nations want.”[26] Together, these factors give Myanmar's neighbors strong short-term incentives to promote stability—often at the expense of good governance and basic human rights.

The United States, Europe and Japan

Since the era of “8-8-88,” most of the international pressure on Myanmar has been generated from the West. Ironically, the stridency of American and European policies toward Myanmar is due largely to the country's relative strategic unimportance. Myanmar is not a major economic or military priority. Consequently, human rights and democracy tend to take center stage in Western foreign policies toward the junta. In the United States, a small number of dedicated activists and concerned policy officials (primarily on Capitol Hill and in the State Department) lead policy formulation toward Myanmar. Scholar David Steinberg asserts that the U.S. government essentially has a “one-track foreign policy in Burma.”[27] A similar situation obtains in many European capitals, especially London. That overriding emphasis on democracy and human rights is a luxury of sorts—one that some Western governments do not believe t hey can afford in more strategically critical countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan. Somewhat ironically, the same strategic factors that enable Western states to take such a hard line on Myanmar make it quite unlikely that the West would spend the blood and treasure needed to push the SPDC out of power by force.

The Japan ese government places slightly more strategic importance on Myanmar, viewing events there partly through the prism of Sino-Japanese competition for influence in Southeast Asia. That fact—and a general Japanese loathing to carry a big stick in its Asian diplomacy, for obvious historical reasons—helps explain why Japan has been one of the principal providers of overseas development aid to the SPDC for the past few decades. Still, Myanmar is not a top-order priority in Tokyo. After the shooting of an unarmed Japanese journalist during the Saffron Revolution, Japan cut off a modest aid package to Myanmar and has since shifted toward a policy slightly more aligned with the Western powers.


For immediate Asian neighbors, Myanmar has much greater strategic significance. To China, it is a strategic gateway to the East Indian Ocean, a key overland trade route, and a prized source of nat ural materials. Since the late 1980s, the Chinese government has cultivated an informal strategic alliance with Myanmar, shielding the junta from political abuse in exchange for privileged access to military installations and economic opportunities. The Sino-Myanmar alignment has been a key element in Beijing's “string of pearls” strategy to establish influence along its southern periphery–particularly along the southern Asian littoral—through a mix of diplomacy and increased access to ports and other military installations. Since the early 1990s, Myanmar has provided China with access to naval intelligence facilities in the Andaman Islands. Partly for military reasons and partly to facilitate its energy trade, China has reportedly been building a new port facility at Ramree Island off Myanmar's southern coast.

Myanmar's importance to Chinese grand strategy should not be underestimated. By encircling itself as much as possible with military and economic allies, the PRC has sought to reduce the capacity of potential rivals—such as India, Japan, and the United States—to develop a new policy of containment as China gathers steam. Toward that end, Myanmar is more than a territory on a strategic checkerboard; it is also a useful political ally at times. The two governments share a common view on issues of state sovereignty and human rights. In fact, their shared ostracism after Tiananmen Square and the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi provided some of the early glue for their informal alliance. Chinese leaders fear that regime change in Myanmar could result in a government more beholden to the West.

Economically, Myanmar provides a valued overland trade route from some of China's less developed provinces, particularly Yunnan, to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian markets. Myanmar is also a source of much-needed raw materials and energy for the thriving Chinese colossus. Proposed pipelines to Yunnan will probably cut across some historically restive parts of Shan and Kachin states, giving China's leaders a financial incentive to promote stable relations between the tatmadaw and rebel minority groups in those areas.


Myanmar is hardly a central strategic concern for Russia. However, the Kremlin has generally resisted Western-led humanitarian interventions in recent years, largely as part of a strategy to chip away at U.S. primacy and establish a more “multipolar” order. The status quo also has strategic benefits for Russia. Developing ties to ostracized regimes in places like Pyongyang and Naypidaw—the remote new capital established by the SPDC in 2006—is a way for Russia to claw back into a position of political relevance in Asia. Support for the junta has also had economic payoffs for Russia. In 2002, the SPDC bought roughly $130 million worth of fighter planes from Russia, and the two governments recently started negotiations for additional purchases of costly air-defense systems.[28] In early 2007, shortly after Russia vetoed a U.S.-proposed Security Council resolution aimed at Myanmar, the SPDC awarded the Kremlin new oil exploration contracts.[29]


Indian relations with Burma—which were frosty during the Cold War—went from bad to worse after the 1988 uprisings. The Indian government openly supported pro-democracy activists, even permitting t he Burmese opposition government to open an office in New Delhi. However, during the 1993-95 period, Indian policy began to reverse course.[30] Officials in New Delhi feared that hardball with the junta would only drive it further into China's embrace. The Indian government has historically viewed Myanmar as an important regional pivot in its relations with China. In particular, Indian officials have worried that China would build a de facto military alliance with Myanmar, establish a strong naval presence in the Andaman Islands, and challenge India's influence in its own maritime neighborhood. The Indian armed forces also saw the tatmadaw as an increasingly important partner in managing the simmering insurgency near their shared border.

Of course, Myanmar is not just an Indian security concern; it is a significant economic prize as well. As India's economy booms, Assam and other energy-poor states of the northeast are increasingly left behind. In 2004, Indian and Korean companies successfully signed a lucrative deal to develop the “Shwe project,” building a transnational pipeline for Myanmar's offshore gas deposits. The project is hardly inconsequential. The pipeline deal alone is worth roughly $3 billion, and the gas reserves are worth an estimated $50 billion at current market prices. The gas pipeline would cut through the states of Arakan and Chin, where insurgencies have simmered for decades, as well as Bangladesh, en route to energy-poor and underdeveloped eastern India. Like China, the Indian government has clear short-term economic and security reasons to avoid upsetting the apple cart in Myanmar. India has little ideological affection for the junta, but it has consistently rejected sanctions and has responded relatively quietly to the past year's events in Myanmar.


The Thai government has also tended to prioritize stability over reform in its relations with Myanmar. Thai-Burmese relations have been historically volatile, and Thai authorities have watched with some concern as Chinese aid a nd arms have helped strengthen the tatmadaw . However, Thailand also has a powerful interest in security along the two countries' shared frontier. Although the Thai and Myanmar armed forces view one another with suspicion and clashed briefly in 2001, the greater fear in Bangkok is that instability could spark renewed fighting in ethnic minority enclaves along the border and produce a refugee crisis. Already, an estimated two million Burmese refugees live in Thailand, filling low-wage jobs but also contributing to the illicit economy and stirring occasional ethnic tensions.

There is also a seamier side to Thai-Myanmar relations. Some military officers and officials on both sides of the border derive sizable illicit rewards from the illicit trade in drugs, wildlife, gems, timber, and other goods. Similar arrangements line the pockets of corrupt officials in India, China, and other regional neighbors. Such enterprises almost certainly do not drive national policies, but they create constituencies of officer s who have little interest in shaking up the status quo.

There have been exceptions—in the late 1990s, Thailand led an effort to promote “flexible engagement,” which would enable ASEAN governments to deal more assertively with domestic problems in Myanmar and elsewhere when such problems posed broader regional concerns.[31] However, when push has come to shove, Thailand has tended to tread gently on Myanmar's sovereignty and has sought above all to preserve broadly stable relations.

Other ASEAN States

The governments of other ASEAN states have split on the Myanmar question, which has been one of the Association's most contentious issues since Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997. The debate surrounds the norm of “non-interference.” For advocates, the principle of non-interference enables ASEAN to draw otherwise hostile states into constructive diplomacy; t o critics, the norm provides a carte blanche for domestic political abuses in the name of national sovereignty. Over the past decade, events in Myanmar have prompted some regional officials to challenge that norm. Legislators from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, and Cambodia formed an ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) in 2004 to promote democracy, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and other reforms, arguing that the situation in Myanmar constitutes a threat to regional security and justifies a harder line toward the junta.[32] However, those voices remain in the minority.

Discourse in regional think tanks suggests that some officials in Southeast Asian ministries also advocate a tougher line against Myanmar, but the official line still tilts clearly toward engagement and inclusion. Most ASEAN governments continue to give great priority to the non-interference principle and disfavor the tougher approach championed by the AIPMC, Western states, and human rights organizations.

Indochinese states have tended to be stout supporters of the non-interference principle. They have consistently defended Myanmar's sovereignty, mostly as a matter of precedent; they fear being next in line if the West is able to justify humanitarian intervention in Myanmar. The Philippines is more openly critical, partly due to an ideological commitment to human rights and democracy, and partly because its limited interests in Myanmar give it little incentive to defy its American allies.

The remaining ASEAN members—particularly Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia—have taken slightly more nuanced and complicated positions. All three states hold the SPDC in some measure of contempt and see the Myanmar issue as a perennial thorn in the side of ASEAN's relations with the West. However, they also share the Thai and Indian concern that alienating Myanmar will only drive the country into China's strategic orbit and facilitate a “two-pincer” PRC military advance into the region. Further, they have economic reasons to suffer the current Myanmar leadership; Singapore and Malaysia in particular have invested extensively in the country.

Over the past year, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have walked a fine line. Indonesia remains broadly committed to the “ASEAN Way” of diplomacy, but its position has begun to shift as it has become more democratic. In early 2008, the Indonesian government criticized Myanmar's draft constitution and encouraged the SPDC to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to participate in the referendum process.[33] Malaysia and Singapore have also tried to strike the right balance between criticism and engagement. Both have significant economic stakes in Myanmar and concerns about Western human rights critiques of their own domestic orders—particularly Malaysia, as the saga of Anwar Ibrahim erupts again. As ASEAN chair, Singapore was highly critical of the SPDC after the Saffron Revolution but ultimately toned down its critique at the 40th ASEAN anniversary in November.

Former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong of Singapore has defended ASEAN's response to the cyclone crisis by arguing that: “What ASEAN has done so far is the correct thing. We provide the comfort level for the Myanmar leadership because Myanmar is part of ASEANand they believe that ASEAN will not abandon Myanmar's interests.”[34] Ong's successor, current ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, has taken a similar approach, even though Surin developed Thailand's controversial policy of “flexible engagement” toward Myanmar in the late 1990s. That policy sought to loosen the strictures of the norm of non-interference, allowing Myanmar's neighbors to prod the junta on human rights and democracy. ASEAN's institutional structure gives Surin limited capacity to push the junta unless national governments stand firmly behind reform. Thus far, they have not.

Fears of a “Balkan Meltdown”
A second reason why international consensus has been lacking over Myanmar concerns different levels of concern regarding the stability of Burmese society. Western pro-democracy advocates tend to promote policies that will weaken the SPDC and express a reasonable degree of confidence that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would be able to unify the country's diverse population if the junta were to collapse. Asian governments are less sanguine about the prospect for successful reform or political transition in Myanmar. Neighboring states in particular have much more to lose than the West if the complex, multi-ethnic state of Myanmar comes undone. They fear a flow of refugees and other non-traditional security threats. Furthermore, the modern state of Myanmar encompasses a wide array of ethnic groups. To many Asian observers, that makes the country a potential tinder-box for rekindled armed conflict if law and order breaks down. That perception gives them added reason to disfavor harsh sanctions or other policies that could usher in rapid regime change.

Concerns about a “Balkan meltdown” in Myanmar serve instrumental motives, but they are not entirely unfounded. In their outrage at the junta's barbarism, Western observers often pay too little attention to the risk of opening Pandora's Box. A weakening or collapse of the SPDC would not necessarily usher in a smooth and peaceful transition to democracy. Advocates for regime change in Myanmar usually point to examples like Philippine “People Power,” which dumped the dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and replaced him with the democratic heroine Corazon Aquino. Indonesia survived the tumult of the Asian financial crisis to throw out Suharto and his cronies, paving the way for one of the region's most successful young democracies.

Still, it would be rash not to consider counterexamples. One need not look further than Baghdad or Kabul to see the challenges of building a complex multi-ethnic state after the oppressive heel of autocracy is lifted. Ever since independence, Burmese government s have had to deal with extensive resistance from ethnic minority groups. The 1947 Panglong Agreement granted a certain degree of autonomy to the states controlled by Shan, Chin, and Kachin peoples, but that pact opened as many questions about self-determination as it resolved. Diverse ethnic resistance has been a fact of life in Burma/Myanmar throughout its independent history. Even since General Ne Win seized power in 1962, the military has justified its rule largely by asserting that it is the only institution capable of preserving national unity.

Myanmar's military leaders have continued to focus on crushing or pacifying rebel groups in recent years. During the 1990s, the tatmadaw signed about 17 major cease-fires with rebel groups. Nearly two dozen armed opposition groups are still active in pockets around the country's remote border regions. The largest include the Karen National Union, the Shan State Army (South) and the Karen National Liberation Army. The United Wa State Army, some groups of Rohingya Muslims, and other ethnic groups also continue to fight. Clashes with a number of ethnic minority rebels intensified after 2004, when the junta purged Khin Nyunt, a leading official known to be a reformer.

The Burmese military, which draws its strength from the ethnic Burman population, has had decades to make enemies, and they have proven quite adept at the task. Although ceasefire areas have calmed, the tatmadaw 's human rights abuses continue. Though many rebel groups along the country's borders have signed roughly two dozen peace deals in the past decade, most have not thrown away their gunpowder. More than a few rebel leaders could be ready to settle old scores if the country's brutal military machine implodes. Any process of regime change would likely be messy and quite possibly bloody as well.

It is also unclear that the state apparatus would continue to function. Like Saddam's Iraq and the Taliban regime, the Myanmar junta has stacked the bureaucracy with an eye toward loyalty and patronage more than technocratic competence. If the tatmadaw comes apart at the seams, so will many of the “civilian” agencies that run the country's day-to-day affairs. After two decades of pummeling, the NLD and other opposition groups may lack the corps of civil servants and security forces needed to take the reins and govern effectively. These concerns are not a justification for inaction by the international community. However, they do help to explain why even many reform-minded analysts and advocates view an all-out sanctions or regime change strategy as problematic. Regardless of one's views of the junta, regime change policies are dangerous, particularly given the fissiparous forces in Burma's multiethnic society and the depth of military involvement in the society.

Policy Gridlock
The paralysis of international institutions and perpetuation of the status quo has served the narrow interests of certain governments and elites, both in Myanmar and in a number of neighboring countries. However, it has contributed to an ongoing tragedy for most of the citizens of Myanmar. If the country is to provide for the basic rights and material needs of its people, t he need for serious political reform is clear. Despite abundant natural riches, the country is now among the world's ten poorest. Its civil service is badly depleted, much of its infrastructure is crumbling, and its people—once among the best educated in the region—are increasingly ill equipped to profit from the economic boom that has swept across Asia. Few places on earth testify so clearly to the consequences of government corruption, cruelty, and mismanagement. Continuing the status quo will almost certainly lead to further SPDC abuses and mismanagement.

To date, neither Western sanctions nor Asian engagement has produced better governance in Myanmar. Without broad multilateral participation, Western sanctions have been unable to bring the junta to its knees. They have certainly put a dent in Myanmar's trade and contributed to the woeful economic conditions that triggered the Saffron Revolution. In that sense, they may have weakened the SPDC's authority. However, they have simultaneously reduced Western clout in Myanmar. In 2000, the United States was Myanmar's largest export destination, accounting for almost 25% of the country's overseas sales. Today, Myanmar has almost no direct dependence on the U.S. export market. Sanctions have also exacted a heavy toll on ordinary Burmese civilians and given Than Shwe and his colleagues an easy scapego at for failed domestic economic policies.[35]

In some respects, the sanctions appear to have backfired. Sanctions have primarily hurt labor-intensive industries like textiles and tourism, which once sold a large share of their goods and services to Western consumers. According to official statistics, garments accounted for about 30% of Myanmar's exports in 2000 but slumped below 8% by 2006.[36] Barriers to trade have sealed off potentially useful contacts between local businesspeople and their Western counter parts, while Asian companies have been glad to sweep in and increase their market shares. Meanwhile, state-owned energy firms and illicit businesses have flourished since the discovery of natural gas off Myanmar's southwestern shore. In an era of soaring commodity prices, natural gas has gone from being a negligible source of foreign exchange in the 1990s to accounting for at least 40% of Myanmar's current exports. By crippling some private industries while state-owned energy giants thrive, sanctions app ear to have had the unintended and perverse effect of raising the tatmadaw 's share of national income.

Moreover, when coupled with regime change rhetoric and unflinching support for Aung San Suu Kyi, Western policy has contributed to a “siege mentality” that has raised the regime's suspicion of reformers. That siege mentality was evident in the junta's paranoid responses to the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, as well as its striking 2006 decision to move the national capital to the remote town of Naypidaw. Western policies are not directly responsible for the SPDC's abuses, but they have helped shape an environment in which the generals are more repressive than ever. In sum, Western governments have too easily clung to an approach that exudes principle but lacks effectiveness.

Relatively unconditional Asian engagement strategies have been even more harmful. By signing lucrative contracts and providing aid with few policy strings attached, China, India, and the ASEAN states have propped up a corrupt, ineffective, and abusive regime. In addition to providing cold hard cash, foreign competition for influence in Myanmar has given the junta commercial and strategic leverage that it would not otherwise possess vis-à-vis its larger and wealthier neighbors.

Partly as a consequence of incompatible foreign policies toward Myanmar, the SPDC appears to have dug in its position quite deeply. There remains a chance that the military regime could crumble. After all, few analysts predicted the precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union. The Saffron Revolution revealed a few small cracks in the SPDC edifice, and some analysts have reported rumors of unrest in the middle ranks of the military.[37] Internal rivalries can arise almost unnoticed in such an opaque system, especially when a leader's old age and ill health foreshadow a struggle for succession. Than Shwe and his deputy, Maung Aye, are reported to have differences as the former seeks to enfranchise his family and cronies before he passes from the scene. However, a forthcoming meltdown of military rule is not yet in sight.

There is also little sign that international policy gridlock is easing significantly. Western governments are generally locked into policies of estrangement. Although sanctions have produced dubious results, they have support from an influential mix of constituencies on the left and right of the ideological spectrum, and American and European politicians stand little to gain from being the first to challenge the status quo. It is even more unlikely that officials in Beijing, Bangkok, and elsewhere in Asia will reverse their long-standing engagement policies. Lucrative trade, valued security ties, and fears of further refugee exodus are enough to ensure continued political and economic engagement. Consequently, a dramatic coalescence of the policies of regional powers is improbable in the near term.

Conclusion: Is There a Way Forward?
As long as international consensus remains elusive, Myanmar will more likely be locked in a holding pattern. Western sanctions will continue to bleed the country economically, but as long as a few key neighbors do business with the SPDC, it will probably survive and withstand most international pressure for reform. Under those conditions, the Burmese people will suffer the brunt of continuing misrule. Improving the international response and promoting reform will therefore require focusing attention on the shared interests of key states and developing a coordinated approach that applies carrots and sticks in a consistent manner.

As this working paper has emphasized, building greater consensus will not be easy. With any concerted policy approach, there will be winners and losers. Some companies and governments will win more contracts, and some will lose. Some bilateral relations will weaken, and others will improve. Some countries will be exposed to a great risk of instability, and others will be relatively immune to events on the ground in Myanmar. The principal international agents for policy reform in Myanmar—including Western governments and activist groups—need to be flexible and pursue results-oriented policies. The goal should be not simply to pummel the SPDC but also to promote the types of human capital and economic development that need to be in place for an eventual political transition to be successful. A policy of tough, principled engagement is more likely to gain Asian support and deliver the desired reforms.

Ultimately, external pressure for reform may only be effective when Asian leaders decide to hold Myanmar to higher standards of governance. China is the key. PRC behavior in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games suggested that China may see incentives to respond to international public opinion as it assumes a greater global role. As it conducts a renewed “charm offensive” in Southeast Asia, the PRC should also consider how its relations with Myanmar will affect its legitimacy as an emerging regional leader. A change in Chinese policy could also induce similar shifts in other As ian capitals by reducing fears that promoting reform would encourage the crystallization of an authoritarian Sino-Myanmar axis. The SPDC has become something of a political albatross for its foreign supporters, at least some of which might welcome the opportunity to push more assertively for reform.

India and ASEAN also have important roles to play. Indonesia, as the largest member of ASEAN and as the world's largest new democracy, is a potential Southeast Asian leader in addressing the problems in Myanmar. During the 1980s, the Indonesian government brought warring factions in Cambodia together in a series of “Jakarta Informal Meetings” that paved the way toward a settlement, and some analysts have urged it to play a comparable role in dealing with the SPDC. In fact, the SPDC has occasionally pointed to Indonesia as a possible model for transitioning toward a more democratic model of governance.

In sum, the most promising realistic way forward would be for both Western and Asian states to steer toward policies of tough engagement, using carrots and sticks in a more organized manner to promote sounder governance. The prospects for such convergence appear relatively bleak at the moment, but the plight of Myanmar and its people provides a continuing incentive and moral imperative for policymakers to surmount short-term, zero-sum objectives and take collective steps to promote a well-governed, economically viable, and humane state.


1. John D. Ciorciari is a 2008-09 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and was a 2007-08 Shorenstein Fellow at Stanford's Asia-Pacific Research Center. [Return to Text]
2. The actual death toll is unknown, but most estimates—including those by relevant UN and relief agencies—exceed 100,000. See, e.g., “Death Toll in Burma Raised by Thousands,” CBC News, May 15, 2008; “Little Recovery in Myanmar,” Los Angeles Times , Sept. 26, 2008; and Colum Lynch and Michael Abramowitz, “U.N. Mulls Reengaging Burma with More Aid,” Washington Post , Dec. 28, 2008.
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3. See, e.g., Joel Brinkley, “Lack of Action by Myanmar Leaders amounts to Genocide,” The News Tribune , May 30, 2008. [Return to Text]
4. See UN World Summit Outcome Document, paragraphs 138-39. [Return to Text]
5. UN Security Council Resolution 1674, adopted Apr. 26, 2006. [Return to Text]
6.See U.N. Charter, Chapter VII, articles 39-42. [Return to Text]
7. Gareth Evans, “Facing Up to Our Responsibilities,” The Guardian , May 12, 2008. [Return to Text]
8. Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, article 7. [Return to Text]
9. Evans, “Facing Up to Our Responsibilities.” [Return to Text]
10. For an argument that Burma/Myanmar has been singled out for particularly harsh treatment, see Michael Aung-Thwin, “Parochial Universalism, Democracy Jihad , and the Orientalist Image of Burma: The New Evangelism,” Pacific Affairs 74:4 (2001), pp. 483-505. [Return to Text]
11. George Yeo, “The Only Game in Town,” Straits Times , Oct. 9, 2007. [Return to Text]
12. Statement by the ASEAN Chair, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, UN General Assembly, New York, Sept. 27, 2007. [Return to Text]
13. Donald K. Emmerson, “ASEAN's ‘Black Swans,'” Journal of Democracy 19:3 (2008), pp. 71-74.
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14. Barry Desker, “Suspend Myanmar from ASEAN,” Straits Times , Oct. 4, 2007. [Return to Text]
15. “Philippines' Leader Urges Burma to Take Steps toward Democracy,” Philippine Daily Inquirer , Sept. 28, 2007. [Return to Text]
16. See Yeo, “The Only Game in Town,” and Yeo's guest column on the blog “A Writer's Blog: My Life, My Thoughts,” Sept. 30, 2007, at [Return to Text]
17. “Indonesia ‘Not Satisfied' by Burma's Explanation of Unrest,” Antara News Agency , Oct. 1, 2007.
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18. “Thai Leader Says Bangkok Has ‘Little Influence' on Burma,” Bangkok Post , Sept. 30, 2007.
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19. Derwin Pereira, “A Test of ASEAN Cohesion: Excerpts from an Interview with George Yeo,” Straits Times , Oct. 2, 2007. [Return to Text]
20. For a more detailed account and analysis of the events of November, see Emmerson, “ASEAN's ‘Black Swans,'” pp. 74-75. [Return to Text]
21. Eric Schmitt, “Gates Accuses Myanmar of ‘Criminal Neglect,'” New York Times, June 2, 2008.
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22. “Brown Condemns Myanmar's Cyclone Response as ‘Inhuman,'” Reuters News Wire, May 17, 2008. [Return to Text]
23. “Myanmar: A Turning Point?” Straits Times , May 30, 2008. [Return to Text]
24. For criticisms of the referendum, see, e.g., Human Rights Watch, “Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma,” available at ; and David Mathieson, “Burma's Referendum of the Absurd,” The New Statesman , May 8, 2008. [Return to Text]
25. Saw Yan Naing, “40 Burmese Dissidents Given Prison Terms of up to 65 Years,” The Irrawaddy , Nov. 11, 2008; and Phoebe Kennedy, “How Burma's opposition lost its fear,” The Independent , Dec. 10, 2008. [Return to Text]
26. Azhar Ghani et al., “Disparate Views in ASEAN on Crisis in the Family,” Straits Times , Oct. 10, 2007. [Return to Text]
27. David I. Steinberg, “Isolating the Regime in Myanmar is Not the Answer,” International Herald Tribune , Jan. 28, 2004. [Return to Text]
28. Bertil Lintner, “Trade and Security Trump Democracy,” The Nation (Thailand), Oct. 5, 2007. [Return to Text]
29. Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung and Maung Aung Myoe, “Myanmar in 2007: A Turning Point in the ‘Roadmap?'” Asian Survey 48:1 (2008), p. 18. [Return to Text]
30. See Jürgen Haacke, Myanmar's Foreign Policy: Domestic Influences and International Implications (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2006), pp. 33-37. [Return to Text]
31. On the principle of “flexible engagement,” see Jürgen Haacke, “The concept of flexible engagement and the practice of enhanced interaction: Intramural challenges to the ‘ASEAN way,'” Pacific Review 12:4 (1999), pp. 581-611. [Return to Text]
32. See, e.g., ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, Asian Voices: Myanmar's Threat to Regional Security, available at
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33. See “Indonesia Urges Burma to Allow Aung San Suu Kyi to Take Part in Polls,” Jakarta Post , Feb. 27, 2008; and “Jakarta Attacks Burma's Draft Constitution,” Financial Times , Feb. 22, 2008. [Return to Text]
34. “Myanmar: A Turning Point?” Straits Times , May 30, 2008. [Return to Text]
35. Maureen Aung-Thwin, an influential Burmese-American advocate for reform in Myanmar, has argued that the sanctions need to be kept in place, because they represent “the biggest leverage that we have.” See “The Opposition Has No Chance Right Now, But This Is Only the Beginning,” Interview with Maureen Aung-Thwin, Reset DOC , Oct. 23, 2007, available at . However, by forcing out U.S. firms like Unocal and curtailing trade, tight sanctions have reduced the SPDC's dependence on the U.S. government and give American officials fewer cards to play. [Return to Text]
36. Tin Maung Maung Than, “Myanmar's Foreign Trade under Military Rule: Patterns and Recent Trends,” in Daljit Singh and Lorraine C. Salazar, eds., Southeast Asian Affairs 2007 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007), p. 248. [Return to Text]
37. After the Saffron Revolution, Colonel Hla Win, a long-time senior member of the junta, reportedly defected into an ethnic Karen rebel-controlled area and sought political asylum after defying an order to massacre a group of monks. At least one senior army official leaked incriminating evidence to the press, and a foreign ministry official resigned at the government's “appalling” response to the protests. [Return to Text]

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