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Burma's Crisis: What Should Outsiders Do?

Burma's Crisis: What Should Outsiders Do?


  • Zarni,
  • Maureen Aung-Thwin

Burma (Myanmar) has been under military rule since 1962. It is the least free country in Southeast Asia by the latest Freedom House ranking of political rights and civil liberties. The current junta's leader, Senior General Than Shwe, has made Daw Aung San Suu Kyi arguably the best known political prisoner in the world. In August-September 2007, following steep hikes in fuel prices, scores of protesters marched in silence and were dispersed or arrested. The protests spread beyond the capital and included at least one by Buddhist monks--a significant development in a largely Buddhist country. Meanwhile, delegates to a national convention convened by the regime completed guidelines for a future constitution. This step on a supposed road map to democracy was criticized by some observers as a ploy to institutionalize army control. Others treated the guidelines less skeptically on the grounds that even regime-favoring rules might be used to nudge the country toward reform, and were thus better than no rules at all.

How should outsiders respond to these conditions? With policies of isolation? Or of engagement? Which of the two logics is more powerful: that isolation will deprive the junta of needed support and thus help spark democratization? Or that engagement will expose the country to liberalization and thus incrementally undermine the regime? Is there a mixed logic worth implementing between these extremes? Or have the mounting protests inside Burma opened a crucial window of opportunity that replaces these alternatives with a radical new logic of carpe diem:that outsiders should actively intervene in support of the opposition and in favor of regime change now? Not to mention the junta's own rationale for retaining power: that military rule is preferable to any alternative.

Maureen Aung-Thwin, while working on Burma at the Open Society Institute (founded by financier/philanthropist George Soros), is an active member of the Asia Committee of Human Rights Watch. She is a trustee of the Burma Studies Foundation, which oversees the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University. She received a BA from Northwestern University and did graduate work at NYU.

Zarni, while researching democratic transition at Oxford, has been active in "Track II" negotiations with the Burmese junta. In 1995 he founded the Free Burma Coalition, which favored sanctions. Later his position evolved toward engagement. He edited Active Citizens under Political Wraps: Experiences from Myanmar/Burma and Vietnam (2006). He received a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Co-sponsored with the Asia Society Northern California and the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at UC-Berkeley.