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One Hell of A Gamble On Burma

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in the heat of the Cold War, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was reportedly convinced that an air strike and invasion to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba would be “one hell of a gamble.” Though the circumstances are notably different, that about sums up the level of risk U.S. President Barack Obama and others are now taking on Burma.

After being scorned for decades as one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Burma’s new nominally civilian government is now being coaxed back into the international fold at a dizzying pace. At its annual meeting in Bali earlier this month, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) awarded Burma the much−coveted diplomatic prize of chairing the grouping in 2014. This week, Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will make the first official U.S. visit to the heavily−sanctioned nation in over 50 years. Everyone from UN Secretary General Ban Ki−moon to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton has offered glowing praise for the Burmese government, and even the opposition National League for Democracy, led by renowned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has re−registered to contest an upcoming by−election after boycotting polls just last year.

There is certainly some cause for all this back−patting. Since civilian President Thien Sien met with Ms. Suu Kyi in August, Burma has witnessed a cascade of reforms that have confounded even the most ardent skeptics. The government has, among other things, halted the construction of the China−backed dam due to public concerns, ended restrictions on the Internet, peaceful protest and free trade unions, loosened press freedom and released hundreds of political prisoners (though many more remain behind bars). Given these “flickers of progress,” Mr. Obama says he wants to “seize what could be a history opportunity” for Burma to possibly “forge a new relationship” with the United States.

Yet it remains unclear whether making such overtures right now will stimulate more reform or stifle it. After sanctioning and isolating a brutal hermetic regime for decades, encouraging a government that has shown an initial willingness to open up does make sense. There is also some reason to believe that Mr. Thien Sien’s government will continue down the path of change, particularly since it badly needs foreign investment from abroad to develop a battered economy and calm a restive populace at home.

But reform drives in Burma have been scuttled by hardliners before, and a similar outcome could result this time. The country also has a long walk down the road to meaningful change. The UN General Assembly offered a reminder of this when it passed a resolution last week condemning Burma in spite of recent reforms, citing “systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” ranging from arbitrary detention to rape and torture. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.−Ind.) released a statement ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s Burma trip stating that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was aware of Burma’s intent to develop nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea as early as 2006. Given this, critics say the international community should be cautious, waiting for more concessions, withholding major trump cards and sitting tight until promises are translated into reality.

Mr. Obama has instead opted for a riskier approach, responding to startling but piecemeal changes with a high−profile visit. This is despite the fears of many that the administration could be duped and look naïve ahead of presidential elections next year if reforms ebb or even reverse. But as the fearless Ms. Suu Kyi once said, “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” Mr. Obama and the international community have shown no shortage of courage gambling on Burma. Let’s hope it pays off.

This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily here.