On Monday I attended the National Democratic Institute’s annual luncheon that featured several awards given to prominent democrats (with a small D). Although much of the public was particularly interested in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s acceptance of the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award, I was struck by another award that was given to a much lesser known recipient. The Women’s League of Burma, represented by Thin Thin Aung, received the 2008 Madeleine K. Albright Award for its work promoting human rights and women’s political participation in Burma. It is activists such as these around the world that are the face of democracy to so many who know only oppression from authoritarian regimes. The military junta of Burma certainly fits that bill, as demonstrated in its complete disregard for its citizens’ livelihoods in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis that struck this past May. After rebuffing many offers of aid, just days after the hurricane hit, the military junta went ahead with a sham referendum on a new constitution that would cement its role in the future governance of the country.
Many are dismayed at the seemingly never ending stream of news reporting oppression and authoritarianism that comes out of Burma. Although there is much cause for concern, there are also glimmers of hope. The Women’s League of Burma is one of those points of light that demonstrates that the spirit of democracy is alive in Burma. Despite continuous attempts by the military junta to silence its critics, groups such as the Women’s League of Burma show us that even in the most oppressive environments, yearning for self determination can not be completely extinguished.
The Women’s League of Burma is training young Burmese women activists in the Thai border area who then risk their lives when they return to their country to document human rights abuses such as forced prostitution and human trafficking by the military junta and organize citizens to promote a greater role for women in Burmese society.
Many point out that the US actually has limited influence over the Burmese regime. This is all the more reason for the US government to be supporting democrats such as those in the Women’s League of Burma. Support of such pro-democracy groups should be enhanced as we look to fashion a stronger policy towards Burma that promotes democratic development.
However, that is not all that must be done. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is another leverage point where the US should be focusing much of its attention. For years ASEAN has taken an approach that has emphasized engagement over isolation. Many ASEAN members are now realizing that this policy of engagement has not worked and it has allowed the military junta in Burma to dig in its heels even further. Targeted sanctions, however, can only be effective when is there is broad agreement and acceptance on their use. ASEAN can play an important role here. As Derek Mitchell and Michael Green pointed out in this 2007 Foreign Affairs article, a coordinated strategy amongst the US and ASEAN would be a step in the right direction.
Of course, the real points of leverage are China and India. Getting India on board will be the easier task. The real conundrum is China – not just on Burma - but on numerous other places such as Darfur where it plays a spoiler role thwarting attempts to provide a united front against an oppressive regime. One of the great challenges of the Obama administration is to find a way to encourage China to play a responsible role in the international community and to have a stake in multilateral actions that might be perceived domestically as undermining Chinese interests. The key is to alter that internal calculation that the Chinese face, showing them that in the long run, they benefit from multilateral international engagement.
Although there is much reason for dismay about the situation in Burma, there remains hope for a democratic change. Such change will come about from a variety of factors. Two important factors that will surely play a role will be that of individual democracy activists on the ground in the country and coordinated international pressure.