A question I've been grappling with lately concerns engagement with foreign governments that systematically violate human rights. When foreign governments are behaving badly, should we engage with them and try to encourage reform, or sanction them and cut off ties? Is engagement the path to reform, or does it merely reward bad behavior? While this dilemma is central to many foreign affairs situations, this post will focus on Burma. I am a close follower of Burmese politics*, and the recent US re-engagement there has troubled me. 

Long story short, the Burmese government has a long history of human rights abuses that continues today. Post-WWII, the former British colony fell into a tumultuous era of failed democracy, ethnocracy (systematic exploitation and oppression of ethnic minorities by a regime favoring the Burman majority), and military dictatorship as ethnic insurgencies broke out across the fragmented country. Most of the worst atrocities occurred when the state military, the Tatmadaw, adopted what was known as the "Four Cuts" strategy-- inspired, by the way, by the strategy the US military used in Vietnam-- which sought to crush insurgencies by cutting off their intelligence, food, weapons, and recruits. The Four Cuts strategy brought the war to civilian villages more than ever before, causing large-scale displacement as people (especially ethnic minorities) fled their homes in terror.

The atrocities and discrimination continue. You can read about current abuses all over the web; I suggest this report by the Women's League of Burma and this article in the New York Times. Nor is it just ethnic minorities who suffer; all Burmese citizens lack full political and civil rights, as the recent student protests in November reminded us. Yet, recent years have also seen some progress in the country, namely democratic reforms, such as increased civilian control of the government, elections, and increased press freedoms. Under the Obama administration, the US has re-engaged with Burma (we resumed diplomatic relations with the country only in 2012), and begun to supply aid to the country, including military aid ostensibly for "human rights education" for troops.

There are two main stories that I hear with regards to Burma and US engagement there. First, some people say that re-engaging with Burma is great, and our cooperation and aid is greatly needed to help carry on with the reform process. On the other hand, the second story is that by re-engaging with the government while abuses continue, the US is letting the Burmese government have its cake and eat it too. That is, as long as the government makes a show of superficial reforms, it can continue to carry on its acts of discrimination and violence, all the while maintaining the economic benefits of US aid and trade.

Both of these two stories seem plausible, and strong arguments can be made for both sides. It's a debate I've thought about frequently lately. In fact, when Sarah Sewall, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, visited my college campus this past fall, I asked her this very same question about US engagement in Burma while the government continues to commit atrocities there. Under Secretary Sewall's response was that she believes that some engagement is always better than no engagement. She qualified the response by explaining that this process of re-engagement must be conducted skillfully and carefully, but, over all, she was optimistic, saying that Burma today was unimaginable just a few years ago.

Yet, I feel uneasy when I hear US officials, journalists, or pundits praise Burma. Yes, change is a slow and difficult process, and yes, we have reason to be happier with the Burma of today compared to the Burma of ten years ago. Still, I wonder if we are grossly undervaluing the continued wide-scale suffering inflicted upon innocent civilians as we paint a picture of a Burma on the road to democracy. I wonder if we are helping reform or harming it.

Congress also seems to be grappling with exactly how to proceed in Burma, pushing for stricter limits that prohibit the Department of Defense from offering any aid to the Burmese military other than for human rights education and humanitarian disaster response training (see article from The Irrawaddy here).

While it appears that the US is committed to continued re-engagement with Burma, including further foreign aid to the country, we need to proceed cautiously. My biggest question of whether we ought to give aid to the Burmese military at all-- at least right now. As a result of decades of military dictatorship, Burma has overspent on its military for decades. The military apparatus is already extremely powerful. Even if US money is used only for the "harmless" purposes like human rights education, that money is still subsidizing an already disproportionately powerful institution. US dollars flowing in for the "good" operations of the military means that Burmese kyats are freed up for potentially more nefarious purposes. In any case, my take is that US aid ought to be more focused on strengthening the civilian institutions that have experienced decades of neglect.

What is your take on US engagement with foreign governments that systematically violate human rights, in Burma or elsewhere on the globe? Does engagement encourage reform, or does it merely reward bad behavior? 

*I have worked closely with the Kachin Women's Association Thailand, an organization that aids Kachin refugees, for about 3.5 years. I also spent a year working as a research assistant conducting research on the Karen National Union and Communist Party of Burma insurgencies.

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Tags: Asia, Burma, Kachin, Myanmar, Rohingya, Sarah, Sewall, US, democracy, diplomacy, More…engagement, foreign, human, policy, reform, rights


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Comment by ACHIRI ARNOLD NJI on December 27, 2014 at 10:56am

just maybe I'm misinterpreting the whole concept of "PIVOT TO ASIA", but i think the US government has realized that it has to choose between two enemies- the rise of CHINA, and unpopular regimes like Vietnam and Burma...the US government also has the same problem between not working with the CASTRO regime or the GLONASS project of Russia in the Americas..

Comment by ACHIRI ARNOLD NJI on December 27, 2014 at 10:45am

so what do you think the US should do? give the Rebels guns so that there should be a "civil war?"...there is something that most people forget-ANYTHING THAT ERODES THE RULE OF LAW IS IMMORAL, NO MATTER WHAT NAME WE GIVE IT. human rights are not only violated by the forces loyal to the government-REBELS kill as well... engaging with the government and trying to bring the different schools of thought together is the only way out...After all it's a legitimate government to many countries...If diplomats think it's easier helping the rebels, then they are wrong...why? firstly, i'm sure the government in place consolidates it's position by PROPAGANDA. secondly, CHAUVINISM... Let's take a look at SYRIA for instance...there are two versions of the war- the western version(more ethical or moral), which illegitimizes ASAD for killing his own citizens and therefore the need to supply weapons to the "free Syrian Army"...then there is the eastern version (auto-determination) backed by Russia, China and Iran which says that the future of Syria is in the hands of Syrians..they equally say that the "free syrian army is a terrorist organization"...whether we arm the "free syrian army" or the "syrian army", there is but one outcome-REGRETTABLE DEATHS...the truth is, no one can measure the full consequences of his/her actions...i'm not saying that the international community shouldn't act, but that the international community should  ACT AS A COMMUNITY...

Comment by Samantha Sherman on December 26, 2014 at 4:08pm

The concern is that by providing aid to the Burmese government, the US is actually strengthening a regime that continues to oppress and violate the human rights of its citizens. By aiding the Burmese military, the US is helping them to crush rebel insurgencies that have fought to protect minority groups and strengthening the power of an already-dominant military apparatus. If we do have concerns for the oppressed in Burma, it is difficult to know whether the way we are currently approaching re-engagement with the government is good or bad for Burmese citizens.  Strengthening relations with Burma is perhaps good for the US from a purely strategic point of view, in light of the whole idea of the "Asia pivot," but from an ethical standpoint it's not too clear.

Comment by ACHIRI ARNOLD NJI on December 26, 2014 at 3:19pm

in my opinion, i think it's better for the US to engage with foreign governments...No man is perfect so if we (governments) interact better, then we would understand each other better...this would facilitate any meaningful dialogue and remove "distrust" which is the main cause of human right violation in countries like CUBA and North Korea...dictators have this belief that anyone who is against their rule is certainly a "puppet of the CIA, MI6, FSB or the french secret service" which may not even be the case...what kind of engagement? though we all know what human rights are, they still vary with religion and culture...so, the engagement shouldn't be the one where one person acts as a "moralist", but someone who has real concerns for the oppressed, and understands the security and historic concerns of the government...

Comment by Samantha Sherman on December 26, 2014 at 2:47pm

Archiri, thanks for your comment. I agree completely that the US has its own major issues, both domestically and abroad. The US is, as you point out, far from perfect. That's why I think it's so important to bring in human rights concerns and other ethical considerations into the decision-making calculus regarding US foreign policy. The US has certainly made some unethical foreign policy decisions throughout its history, but I believe we can work towards making better decisions in the future-- like with Burma today.

Comment by ACHIRI ARNOLD NJI on December 25, 2014 at 6:18am

the concept of violation of human rights is becoming "very relative".. truely there are countries under dictatorial regimes who violate clearly fundamental human rights...however, the most "ethical countries" also have their own human issues. According to Edward Snowden, "the US government spies on people"...according to the US officials, "the spying was mainly for security reasons" if the Iranians, the Cubans and the North Koreans also say "we limit the freedom of our people for security reasons" then we would have to rethink the whole concept of "human right violation"...not even withstanding the issue between the police and African americans

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