The Burma expert defends aid, diplomacy, and “understanding” Burma’s dictators in order to improve human rights, sway softliners, and save lives.
Early last month, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell met with Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and offered a battery of human rights demands to her wardens in the military government. The dictators have been gearing up for elections later this year. Yet, unfazed by Campbell’s demands, they yawned and pressed on with elections from which Suu Kyi, who won in 1990, and her opposition party, the National League for Democracy, are banned. International election monitors? Also banned. And don’t expect election-day scoops from a country where a foreign journalist was shot point-blank for covering monks’ protests in 2007. “I think they learned their lesson from 1990 when they actually allowed for a free and fair election and lost in a landslide,” said Jared Genser, Suu Kyi’s international counsel.
Days after his visit, Campbell admitted “profound disappointment” that more had not come from the talks. Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK, noted judiciously: “… Clearly after _two visits_ [by Campbell] since last September, engagement with the regime has produced no results at all.” [Emphasis added] On May 15, the president renewed economic sanctions against the regime. But members of Congress sought to make those sanctions even tougher. “In a further sign of fraying American patience,” the _Guardian_ reported, “a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. House of Representatives called this week for a ‘tougher and more robust application of sanctions on Burma’ and urged the Obama administration to back an international war crimes inquiry.”
President Obama’s policy on Burma has something for everyone. It’s a hodgepodge of baby-step diplomacy, self-righteous threats, and crippling economic sanctions. The sanctions condemn the dictators for rights violations by blocking U.S. investments (except for Chevron, which is somehow allowed to stay), including all non-humanitarian aid. Morten Pedersen, a Burma scholar lurking in the bibliography of a lot of Burma policy books, insists that the sanctions, especially the ban on aid, are undermining the president’s diplomacy. Oh, and starving the Burmese.
During his six-year stay in Burma, where he was able to use his conversant Burmese to interview experts and ordinary people, Pedersen says the most dire rights violation he found was crushing poverty. Alongside political rights, he argues that socioeconomic rights must be seen as part of the array of human rights. But such an approach would seem anathema to a Congress that prioritizes condemnation and punishment of the generals over the well being of the people of Burma.
Advocating an approach he calls principle engagement, Pedersen writes in an op-ed in the _Canberra Times_, “pressure can be exercised without mindlessly ratcheting up sanctions, which have little practical impact other than limiting our ability to influence broader social, political and economic processes. Quiet, but persistent, pressure and support for incremental gains is likely over time to shape the political behaviour of the military more effectively than public condemnation and sanctions.”
Calling the generals’ outlook Hobbesian, Pedersen argues in Promoting Human Rights in Burma, “We may feel that the military leaders hold socially deviant values, or that their fears regarding political reform are unjustified. Yet, like many leaders who believe they have a higher purpose, they are largely impervious to criticism, and do not expect nonbelievers—foreigners in particular—to understand.” So what’s the point of talking to them? Well, like all regimes, Burma’s has hardliners and softliners. As distasteful as it may sound, can “understanding” the generals, even speaking in their terms, bring about human rights improvements, bolster military softliners, and save lives? And if so, is it politically viable?
Pedersen is a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for International Governance and Justice. Burmese historian Thant Myint-U calls him “one of the foremost students and scholars of Burmese politics anywhere outside the country.” Pedersen previously worked as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Burma and consultant on Burmese politics and development affairs with the UN, the World Bank, and the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum. I spoke with him at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in late March, while he was in town for a conference. We sat amidst a throng of tourists who drank high-priced martinis and ate complimentary nuts.
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: You lived in Burma for six years. The generals are killing and imprisoning and torturing a lot of their people. Some say they are committing genocide against groups like the Karen. Liberals and conservatives in the U.S. and Europe seem to have converged on this idea that if there is ‘evil’ there, we certainly shouldn’t fund it. It’s not moral for us to deal with them. Do you disagree?
Morten Pedersen: There’s two ways of looking at morality. One would be when you look at the act itself, [asking] is that moral or immoral? Many people would define it as immoral, because it funds a bad regime. To me, morality is better looked at in terms of its consequences. I look at how our acts impact the Burmese people. If there is a net benefit from our acts for the Burmese people, I see it as moral. You often are accused of being immoral when you argue for engagement. I think it’s important to make that point up front that that’s not the issue. We can disagree on things, but it’s not about morality. And of course it all depends on what type of engagement we’re talking about.
People especially in the U.S., are quick to say, “If you’re not sanctioning then you are doing ASEAN-style engagement, which is commercial engagement.” The kind of engagement I’m talking about is what I term “principle engagement,” whose up-front objective is to bring improvements in human rights for the Burmese people. By that I mean the entire range of human rights, not just political and civil rights, but also socioeconomic rights, which, as far as I’m concerned, are of equal value. That’s certainly something that [was clear from] my six years in Burma, that socioeconomic issues are uppermost in people’s minds.
Guernica: So just to define principle engagement…
Morten Pedersen: So if there’s a net benefit flowing from the engagement in human rights terms, then I see it as being the way to go. And that then gets into these rather difficult calculations of what is the relative benefit of one approach versus the other. A lot of the discussion is about aid, because that really is where the door is in Burma. The reality is that there wouldn’t be a lot of trade and investment flowing into Burma even if sanctions were lifted, because of the economic environment. (You would get more of it than now, but not a lot.) So I’ve spent a lot of my time looking at aid as a way of having a dialog or a conversation both with the regime but also with society. Of course [that means] a financial relationship that can improve living conditions of people on the ground.
Guernica: Because right now the U.S., for one, doesn’t give significant amounts of aid?
Morten Pedersen: The U.S., as part of this new diplomatic engagement policy has also for the first time committed to openly giving aid inside the country. For many years, it was all outside. But that has kind of been shifting over the last seven years. They have begun to do little things inside.
Guernica: And the E.U.?
Morten Pedersen: The E.U. made a decisive shift seven or eight years ago where they said we’re going to separate politics and humanitarian issues. My argument is that you’re dealing with a long-term crisis. Humanitarian aid by definition is aid that saves lives in a crisis. Burma is an extended crisis; therefore going in and saving lives of course has value. But it doesn’t make sense to _only_ do that. Because you save a life today but then tomorrow the crisis will come back and threaten it again. There has to be more ambition than that.
I think to address Cheney’s point, there are definitely people who cannot be reformed. But accepting that is not to accept that you can’t make a difference.
Morten Pedersen: Principle engagement is changing governance to the extent that you can so that human rights improve. But [you’re] also helping people cope with whatever situation exists. So in the short term, it’s about helping people cope. And in the medium term, I think it is also a strategy for beginning to effect changes that over time can lead to bigger things. But it will be domestically driven change and you [see] at best international aid or engagement, or whatever it is, as possibly being a catalyst for that.
The idea that aid props up the regime is ludicrous. In power terms, it is irrelevant. If you stick to the concept of morality where we shouldn’t be doing anything that benefits a corrupt regime, yes, then you’ve got a problem. But if you look at morality in utilitarian terms, I don’t believe that you do, because there’s not significant power consequences of the aid going in. Or at least you can make sure that there isn’t. Of course, I am assuming here that aid agencies are being principled themselves and that they look after their money and that there is proper monitoring and so forth. There’s been an easy argument out there for years, you know, ‘Aid won’t make a difference, you’re not allowed to do anything that’s meaningful and they will steal all of it.’ But it has been proven by the agencies that have engaged that this is not the case.
Guernica: So in its limited way, aid works?
Morten Pedersen: Aid works to the extent that aid works in any country. Usually it doesn’t change a country, right? But it can do things at the individual level.
Guernica: Your book strongly argues for more understanding not just of Burmese history but of the specific perspective of this murderous military junta. Many would criticize this argument that we need to understand bad guys. Dick Cheney offered extreme contempt for American liberals by saying something like, “Liberals want to put terrorists on the couch and psychoanalyze them.” In a way, you take a step in that direction. Tell me what the benefits of understanding the generals are.
Morten Pedersen: I think to address Cheney’s point, there are definitely people who cannot be reformed. But accepting that is not to accept that you can’t make a difference. Of course, if there are people who can’t be reformed then the difference that you can make is with other people, including other people in the regime. Some people say hardliners and softliners; it’s a useful way of distinguishing [how] the Burmese regime has softliners just as any other regime. And to the extent that engagement can change minds, can change policies, those are the people we’re looking at. So engagement at best can reinforce or empower people within the regime who are interested in [change].
Guernica: Of course now the Obama administration is engaging “pragmatically” with the regime. To make this engagement more productive, you argue that Burmese history ought to be better understood. What does that history look like?
Morten Pedersen: I think we have to accept that this is a military that genuinely believes that Burma without its military in control (not necessarily as rulers, but certainly in a key role) would not have survived and even today would not survive.
If you take sanctions too far, as we have in Burma, you start blocking other things that would be more effective in helping the Burmese people and bringing about improvements in their human rights.
Guernica: Besides the Buddhist clergy, the military is the only viable institution with any longevity in Burma. And that goes back to just after World War II when independence came; Aung San Suu Kyi’s dad, feeling angry and humiliated by decades and decades of colonial rule, impatiently but understandably told the British to beat it before the Brits could rebuild the country. With the chaos that ensued, the military was the only feasible institution. This was the view that developed, in part as a justification for the generals’ curtailing democracy. Many have argued, including Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, that the military remains the only viable institution in Burma.
Morten Pedersen: Yeah, I mean I’m not personally prepared to accept the argument that a depoliticized military would be the end of Burma.
Guernica: Which is what military hardliners argue.
Morten Pedersen: My point is that I do accept that there are a lot of people in the military who believe that. So we’re not dealing with a regime that is solely interested in personal power and privilege, although that is obviously an element, as it is everywhere. It is a regime that also has a founding ideology, a self-image as having a critical national role, and which does, in fact, act on that. Not just running the country as their own kind of bank or business, although some of them seem to; there are others who are concerned with much more. But I should clarify that the distinction between aid and diplomatic engagement is actually not that big. A lot of the most effective conversations with the regime are conversations that are being had on the ground by agencies that are engaged there on practical projects.
So it’s not Kurt Campbell flying into the capital, talking about how they should conduct the elections. I don’t think that’s gonna lead anywhere. I don’t think that conversation is wrong. But the idea that you can negotiate significant changes at the political level in a short timespan, I don’t believe that’s gonna work. But we do know that conversations about economic policy, for example, do from time to time have an impact and lead to changes in governance. When engaging in these conversations, a good place to start in a country like Burma is to accept that we’re not gonna be able to change Burma. We simply don’t have the means, the leverage, to change a country like that in the dramatic ways that we tend to focus on.
Guernica: China’s stance seems to further undermine any influence that sanctions could once have had.
Morten Pedersen: I think pressure is important. But where I want the sanctions to stop is… you need just enough to have that possible effect. But if you take them too far, as I believe we have done in Burma, then you start blocking other things that I think would be more effective in helping the Burmese people and bringing about improvements in their human rights.
Guernica: Specifically, what parts of sanctions should be kept?
Morten Pedersen: If you’re gonna use sanctions on Burma they have to be strictly targeted. It should be the kind of sanctions that don’t really have an impact on the broader economy or the broader population. Things like the visa ban and freezing the generals’ accounts. None of this really bites that much. And I’m not saying it’s gonna usher in change. But it sends the message that we are unhappy with the way you are doing things, and says this is not according to international standards.
Guernica: But it isn’t counterproductive, in your view?
Morten Pedersen: In comparing the different types of sanctions, those are at the end of the continuum where it’s something we can look at. But there may be counterproductive effects. When you move into broader economic sanctions, then we’re in the middle now. Then it starts to become problematic. It is not possible to target sanctions; because if you target them to hurt the generals, they can pass it on. They can deflect it.
Guernica: It could even end up increasing their corruption over things like aid.
Morten Pedersen: It could, yeah. So once you move into economic sanctions, we’re already beyond what I think is strategically smart to do. But where it becomes really problematic is where you have aid sanctions. Because aid is the wench in the door that we have. You get people in there on the ground who have conversations, build capacity, change minds all across the state and society. No, they don’t engage with Senior General Than Shwe. But they engage at the ministerial level and then all the way down to people living in the villages. And with the amount of aid, we aren’t talking about dramatic changes. But we are talking about positive changes, both in terms of immediate outcomes and I believe also in terms of beginning to create conditions for bigger change, which will have to be primarily domestically driven. But if you can get the people in the regime to loosen up a little bit. I mean they are so paranoid; they have been paranoid for many years. Well, paranoid, but it started out not being paranoia. I mean, it was real.
Guernica: You mean in the period around 1950?
Morten Pedersen: The whole country was at war in the early nineteen fifties. Back then it wasn’t paranoid to believe you needed to control things.
Guernica: Everything was fragmenting.
Morten Pedersen: Yeah.
Guernica: There were something like a dozen ethnic groups that rebelled. There was a communist faction. The U.S. had supported Chinese nationalists within Burmese borders, arming them to the teeth. So the country was total chaos, falling apart…
Morten Pedersen: Yeah. You had other countries in the region, Vietnam, Korea, at different times or a bit later, that were split in two. This is the nightmare scenario.
The Burmese generals have no affinity at all with the people who are sanctioning them.
Guernica: Some of the U.S. and Europe’s policy is a result of a fixation on Aung San Suu Kyi as the main entry point into Burmese history, which is certainly compelling. It hooked me. As did conversations with Karen and other Burmese exiles. But you seem to argue that we don’t see Burma enough through the filter of the history of the people we have to deal with.
Morten Pedersen: What I would say is [these Burma watchers] see Burma through the last twenty years, which is equivalent to the Suu Kyi period. The reason it’s twenty years is because that period has not changed. That’s exactly the point. It’s exactly the same issues we’re dealing with now that were the issues in 1988. And this of course is why everybody should start having a look at existing policies. When, twenty years down the road, absolutely nothing has changed [in what] you have stated as your goals, then certainly you have a very good reason for a revision of what you’re doing.
Guernica: Critics of sanctions equate them with sanctions on Cuba, Iran, or Iraq, where they have failed to change governments, except perhaps to entrench them, in ways that seem counterproductive and certainly hurt the public. Yet proponents of sanctions cite South Africa, where sanctions helped bring down a regime built around institutionalized racism. Which scenario is more pertinent to Burma?
Morten Pedersen: South Africa was actually a partial democracy. Blacks were not involved in that democracy. But there was a white constituency that had influence on government decisions. In Burma, there is no such constituency. There’s no one outside the army that has influence on policy decisions. There’s a close business community. But while they’re close to the generals, they have no political influence. In South Africa, there was a large business community that had direct influence through electoral processes and beyond that. And South Africa was also heavily integrated into the global economy, and the global cultural community. The whites were really hurt by being shunned by what was in fact their peer group in Europe. So they were hurt, culturally they felt isolated, the shaming worked, and the economic pressure worked. And they then put pressure on the government. That may not have changed otherwise.
Guernica: In Burma, those elements are not there?
Morten Pedersen: The Burmese generals have no affinity at all with the people who are sanctioning them. Culturally, there’s no link whatsoever.
Guernica: In fact, there’s still resentment against the U.S. for backing Chinese nationalists, Great Britain for backing the…
Morten Pedersen: And for what the Americans have been doing for the last twenty years. And economically they just aren’t integrated. So the economic pain that you can impose is very limited. And even if you could impose pain on the cronies, they don’t have the political influence to change anything. So the generals, as far as I’m concerned, are isolated in terms of political effects of sanctions. If you do something and the Burmese generals gain a little from it but the Burmese people gain a lot, then by my calculation that’s the moral thing to do.
Guernica: For instance, regarding aid.
Morten Pedersen: Diplomacy too. If you go and talk to the generals, then maybe they feel a little good that the ‘Americans come and talk to us, we’re somebody.’ You can make the argument at any level, really. And, ideally, I would not want them to feel good. But if that conversation can help open space for something that benefits the people, or can begin to change their mind so they do govern in a way that is less abusive, then to me it’s the right thing to do.
Guernica: Reading your book is confusing to me. I have read many others that make the story of the Karen, for instance, very compelling. But your book seems to point back at the generals to remind us of their story, in order to better engage them. Aren’t these two arguments contradictory, or can they be complimentary?
Morten Pedersen: That’s a tricky one to answer. Because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the narrative we’re being told about the suffering [of groups like the Karen] in the border areas. I don’t have any doubt that it is extreme and has been ongoing for a very long time. There’s nothing good to say about what is going on out there. I think the implicit argument in the book is that there is more to Burma than the eastern border areas. So that doesn’t mean less attention to the eastern border areas, but it means more attention to the rest of Burma.
Guernica: The argument of these books, books like Mac McClelland’s For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question, and Edith Mirante’s books, is that the eastern and other border areas have been most neglected, because these people live far out on the border and have marginal influence inside Burma, let alone in the broader world of international policy. If we want to understand the morality of this regime, look to the eastern border area where we have something tantamount to genocide. You say, essentially, it’s the generals we should be looking at. Why?
Morten Pedersen: Well, I guess because I’m coming at it from a policy angle. In order to analyze the impact of sanctions policy, the key thing that we need to understand is why the generals do what they do, so that we can have a more effective conversation.
If the purpose is changing their mind, then coming and saying, ‘You are evil, you need to go away,’ will get you nowhere.
Guernica: In a way, I keep trying to ask you this: why do the generals do what they do?
Morten Pedersen: You need to accept that national security, as the generals define it, is their key concern; you can argue about whether that’s the right way of defining it. And I would disagree with that way [as well]. But that is how they define it. That is a significant objective and a significant motivating factor in everything they do. So when you engage with them you need to recognize and acknowledge that. And you need maybe even to go a bit further and frame your conversations in a way that kind of accepts that there are security concerns that are legitimate. But maybe there are other ways of addressing those security concerns. I mean other countries in Southeast Asia have also faced risks of their country, if not splitting apart, then fragmenting in some significant way. Rather than addressing that problem militarily like the Burmese have done, they have addressed it economically by pushing economic growth and spreading it to provinces.
Guernica: So to get the Burmese generals to think of a new story about how to hold the country together, it’s productive and helpful for those dealing with them to understand how the generals see the country’s national security problems now, and show some acknowledgment of that in dealing with them?
Morten Pedersen: If the purpose is changing their mind, which is hard anyway, then coming in and saying, ‘You are evil, you need to go away,’ will get you nowhere. But if you come in and you recognize some of what I believe are real concerns of the military, however misunderstood they may be, then you have the start of a conversation which can possibly lead to suggesting [policies] that are more acceptable to the international community, but, more importantly, are better for the Burmese people.
Guernica: Zoya Phan suggests an arms embargo. What’s your take on that?
Morten Pedersen: I think that looking at an arms embargo is where we should have started. But an arms embargo wouldn’t be very effective because you probably wouldn’t get cooperation of the neighboring countries and even if you did we all know how the arms trade works. I mean the arms trade breaks through sanctions everywhere. You can make it more expensive but you can’t stop it. So it would be a symbolic sanction more than an instrumental or effective one but that is definitely on the side that I would call good, or better sanctions.
Guernica: There’s a reasonable debate on that?
Morten Pedersen: Yeah, reasonable sanctions. But one that would be very hard to get.
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