By Roland Watson
October 16, 2005


The President is authorized to use all available resources to assist Burmese democracy activists dedicated to nonviolent opposition to the regime in their efforts to promote freedom, democracy, and human rights in Burma…

- Section 8 of the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003

For the last two years Dictator Watch has undertaken a major campaign to influence United States policy, and behavior, towards Burma. This has been a private campaign, known only to a few, and distinct from our public advocacy which consists of articles, photographic documentation of the crimes of the SPDC, etc. Friends in the know commented that the effort was doomed to failure, since, they argued, the U.S. is not sincere. We replied that the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, coupled with the statements by the Bush Administration at the beginning of this year, represented a real opportunity, which we must strive to grasp.

We proposed three separate initiatives, with supporting documentation: two humanitarian, and one to trigger a democratic transition. The first humanitarian proposal was a large scale and systematic plan to provide assistance to internally displaced persons, who currently receive, despite the public concern of the U.S. and the International Community as a whole, very little help at all.

The second proposal was a plan to assist child soldiers in the Burma Army, who, again, despite widespread international indignation, receive no assistance whatsoever.

Lastly (although not chronologically), we offered a plan, for which we require an international sponsor, to bring democracy to Burma, and to end, once and for all, the suffering of IDPs and child soldiers, and also political prisoners, refugees, indeed, all the people of the nation.

Many people in the Burma democracy movement believe that barring a foreign military intervention democracy is not achievable. Since such an intervention at the present time is unlikely, this creates a momentum to go along with those parties that support engagement-appeasement with the regime and the absurd notion that through dialogue and negotiation the generals will relinquish power.

The movement is incorrect though in the belief that democratic change requires such an intervention. Other plans – non-violent plans – do exist. Our approach, for example, will generate the event that is required to both inflame the power struggle at the top of the SPDC and also to initiate a renewed popular uprising.

In the last two years we have had dozens of meetings, in the State Department, with U.S. officials in Bangkok, and with legislative and foreign policy aides for important Senators and Congresspersons. I have personally collected over thirty business cards with the seal of the United States: the Eagle of Freedom embossed in gold.

For all this effort, though, we have achieved nothing. Our proposals were politely received and then openly ignored. This article is an analysis of why this occurred. We failed either because our ideas are not convincing; or the U.S. is unwilling to work with us (but if so, why all the meetings); or because when you get right down to it Washington is insincere. Our friends whom we thought were unjustly cynical were right all along. All the talk out of D.C. in support of democracy for Burma is nothing more than that: just talk.

We’re publishing this analysis because we believe our experience offers insights that will be valuable to everyone who is dedicated to the goal of real freedom for Burma, no matter how long it takes.

Activists as “special interests”

A standard activist tactic is to lobby government officials. In the U.S., this might be focused on local, state or federal officials, depending on the cause or issue involved. In general, though, it is a difficult tactic to use. It can be a major challenge to get government officials to support your policy recommendations or requests for specific action (much less provide funding), and even when you are successful the effort invariably takes a very long period of time.

This article explores why this is the case, with an emphasis on convincing officials in the federal government.

Lobbying, the efforts of “special interests,” do fulfill a natural and legitimate role in a representative democracy, notwithstanding the controversy that surrounds the process. Government, particularly the United States Government, must contend with an extraordinarily diverse range of subjects, and staffing and expertise is limited. On a particular issue, if you do not make your views known, officials involved in setting policy and making decisions may well be unaware that such a perspective exists, and could easily be swayed by competing views. For activism, this is a common occurrence, since corporate lobbyists promote their positions aggressively and effectively, which positions activists regularly oppose. In such a situation, if you don’t make an effort to balance the corporate agenda, it will be implemented by default.

Also, in this article I refer to “convincing,” rather than “persuading,” because I want to make it clear that you should base your arguments on reason. I recommend against using emotional appeals, and I further believe that it is severely unethical – criminal – to engage in corruption. Corporations, for example, commonly offer government officials financial inducements, which range from gifts or trips through to campaign contributions and other direct bribes. Furthermore, they make regular use of the quid pro quo, where in return for support on a particular position the officials are promised lucrative jobs in industry.

All such variants are corrupt, and should be punishable crimes, although in the U.S., and elsewhere, their occurrence is commonplace. Even more, if government access is available only to the wealthy, the system is corrupt, even if money does not change hands.

There has been a lot of discussion in Washington about lobbyist regulation. For example, one view is that activist positions should be represented, side by side with the corporations, in all committees, task forces, and formal testimony. The problem with this approach is that we can never match corporate financial resources, and the offices in D.C. and social access that this buys. The corporate Old Boy Network is inherently undemocratic and should be banned. Regulation is not enough.

Lobbying should be limited to real people, including organizations thereof. Corporations are not “persons.” The 1886 Supreme Court ruling (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company) which granted them this status was flawed, and must be reversed. (There is an ongoing activist campaign dedicated to this end.) Through this decision the Court established a new class of existence, “Superpersons,” which is anathema to democracy’s principle of equality since with their resources corporations can easily drown out the voices of real persons.

The establishment of government policy

There are a number of distinct processes by which elected officials govern:

1. Individuals come to office with an agenda, which in most cases reflects personal preferences and priorities. They believe that since they were elected, they can now do what they want. One would hope that this would be to fulfill election promises, and to satisfy the interests of the electorate, but this is not always the case.

If you are working on a cause in which an official takes a personal interest, this could be a major boon to your efforts, although if the official opposes your position it will probably be a disaster.

This is also the first instance in which a government may be corrupt. Officials regularly make decisions that benefit their own business interests, or those of cronies. Further, such corruption may be direct, e.g., though the rigging of a bid, or via policy. The latter is called “policy corruption,” and it occurs when governments set and then implement general policies, such as to reduce taxes, which in turn lead to financial windfalls for the officials or their cronies.

Lobbying targeted at leaders is a top down approach. It is also the best approach if you have the access or the officials are supportive of your views. However, it generally requires great financial resources: access costs money. Barring this, the tactic will not work. No matter how many appeals you or your group make, you will be ignored.

2. Policy is also established by the staffs of the top officials. The staff members prepare analyses – white papers – of important government responsibilities, and in the process recommend specific positions or policy alternatives. The leaders then decide whether or not to follow these recommendations.

As an activist you can also lobby such lower level officials, which is a bottom-up approach, although access can again be an issue. For example, at the federal level it is easier to make your case, via a phone conversation or in an actual appointment, with a congressional aide than it is with a department or agency employee.

This is an excellent approach to use since leaders generally listen to their staffs. If you can get staff support for your positions the top officials may back you as well. However, it is weaker than the first option. What usually happens is that corporations lobby top down, while we are making our case at a lower level, with the result that we regularly lose.

There is also the risk that you will be stymied, that the staff members, while listening sympathetically, will actually block the submission of your ideas to the higher levels. For example, in our Burma lobbying this likely occurred. (We have no way to know for certain.) The top officials that we were trying to convince, including the U.S. Secretary of State (first Colin Powell and now Condoleezza Rice), and the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, have probably received only the briefest of summaries of our proposals, if any at all.

There are many reasons why we might have been blocked, the first of which is deniability. If Secretary Rice is not informed of our proposals, she is not put in a position of having to personally reject them, which might be risky to her if our ideas are good (which they are), and her rejection later becomes public.

More generally, activists must deal with government inertia, which is the inclination not to do something. Inertia in turn is tied to the trait of risk-aversion, and bureaucracy, i.e., the search for reasons not to act.

Risk aversion is the unstated decision to attempt only the tried and true, even if such approaches always fail. Any proposal that involves risk is weeded out; it is rejected at some level in the decision making process. Further, this rejection may reflect an unwillingness by the staffers to do the work that the proposal requires, or to bear the personal risk that it represents, if it fails, to their careers.

Government bureaucracy provides fertile ground through which specific reasons can be manufactured for a proposal’s rejection:

- The proposal is viewed as being against established policy. However, this decision is based on the interpretation of the staffers, although it is not actually their responsibility. Policy responsibility, both its establishment and interpretation, lies with the leaders.

- The proposal is against established procedure. For example, USAID funds only recognized (and registered) NGOs. However, for Burma these groups are not actively pushing for democracy, on the ground. They only concern themselves with “capacity building” and humanitarian aid, which while laudable are not the same thing as a practical strategy to defeat the SPDC. Further, the recognized NGOs are themselves large and bureaucratic.

In addition, if a proposal represents a completely new approach, there may well be no procedures in place to deal with it. Hence, it can be rejected out of hand.

- Also, as was implied, promoting ideas from the bottom up is a consensus-based procedure. Any official along the way (for action on Burma there are many individuals in the U.S. government who must be consulted, in Rangoon, Bangkok and Washington), effectively has veto power.

A further problem is that State Department officials periodically leave for new posts. You may have to start all over again if an official with whom you have a strong relationship is reassigned.

- Activists must also deal with official myopia. While this reflects incompetence as well as bureaucracy, the voices of Burma activists have regularly been ignored because officials are too preoccupied with the partisan battle of the moment in D.C.

- Lastly, there is the issue of corruption, which can occur at the staff level as well. In the U.S. this seems to be less of an issue, but it is commonplace elsewhere. Perhaps if Burma democracy activists bribed lower level officials in Thailand, India and China (as if we would have the money available to do so!), we might get better support.

3. As point 2 suggests, lobbying is focused on government officials not only in the Executive Branch, but also the Legislative. A recognized activist truth in the U.S. is that if you want the Administration to do something, you need congressional – or media – pressure. Congress is important because of its ability to influence the Administration, and also since it writes the laws. In many cases activists desire not only favorable policy, but legal remedies. The Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, for example, was written by Congress (following years of activist pressure). President Bush only signed it.

For Congressional lobbying there are many possible approaches, too numerous to mention here. The great successes of Burma democracy activists in the U.S. were the Burma sanctions implemented in 1997 (on new investment) and in 2003 (on trade). Dictator Watch has also lobbied Congress to pressure the Administration on Burma, both through individual Senators and Congresspersons and through groups of such officials using what are known as “Dear Colleague” letters.

The risk exists again though that you will be blocked. For example, we had a campaign to send a letter from Congress to former Secretary Powell requesting action to assist IDPs. We wrote the letter, enlisted a sponsoring Congressperson, and wrote the Dear Colleague letter from that individual to other members of Congress requesting signatures on the first.

This initiative died, though, seemingly (we can’t be sure of the exact reasons) because the staff of the sponsoring Congressperson lost interest.

Congress is also susceptible to corruption, and at the moment this particularly seems to be the case with the Republicans (witness Tom Delay’s indictment), which isn’t surprising given their incestuous relationship with industry. Current Republican principles seem to boil down to one thing: do anything at all to win power, and to retain it. (This is not an argument for the Democrats, by the way, who in their own way, e.g., they are cowards, are just as bad.)

Also, corruption in Congress appears to extend to the staff level to a greater extent than it does in the government proper. Many senior Congressional aides now routinely leave to take well-paid posts with D.C. lobbying firms, to promote with their former bosses the positions of their now corporate clients.

4. One of the best ways to get the government to act is to create media pressure, but again this is a difficult task, with many pitfalls. By media pressure we mean the coverage of major media outlets, which at the present time have been centralized under a few, huge, corporate entities.

The main problem is a variation of the government myopia issue mentioned above. The corporate media suffer from the same disease. They have no real interest in Burma. It’s a boring story. Millions of people may suffer extreme repression, granted, but on a day-by-day basis not enough happens.

Further, corporate media cannot be trusted. TV coverage is generally snippets of information, which are often unwittingly biased (e.g., for the SPDC – please see our October 2003 statement: Empathy, Sympathy and Objectivity). There is little in-depth, thoughtful coverage. In the worst cases corporate media are blatantly dishonest. They will spin stories as they see fit. We have even heard reliable anecdotal evidence of a major TV producer making competing versions of the same story, alternative versions of the “truth,” and then letting the network’s executives decide which to show, i.e., which was the most controversial, and hence would attract interest and viewers, and through this corporate advertising and profits.

As a proviso, then, when attempting to solicit the interest of any journalist, be extremely wary, and ask a lot of questions about what he or she intends to do and how their specific editorial process works.

5. One of the best ways to convince the government is through public pressure, including protests, large scale write-in campaigns, etc. A benefit of this approach, particularly with protests, is that it will attract media interest, which in turn will multiply the effect. Further, since the media are covering a public event, they are generally more balanced.

However, for Burma we have yet to inspire a mass movement, in any nation (including in Burma itself, at least in recent years – some of the suggestions in the conclusion of this article may help rectify this).

6. Lastly, when all else fails, you can use litigation to force government officials to follow the law. For example, in the U.S., environmental activists regularly sue to force the Forest Service to adhere to the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. For Burma, though, litigation offers little hope, since the provisions of the aforementioned sanctions bills are being followed.


The above analysis reveals a variety of problems that have reduced the effectiveness of activists lobbying for greater government action on Burma. There are other issues as well, which are summarized here.

As a proviso, I understand that the views expressed herein run counter to the beliefs of many people in the Burma democracy movement. I further agree that Secretary Rice’s boycott of the Asean ministerial in Laos was an excellent step, and likewise that it would be superb if the U.S. does force the issue and put Burma on the Security Council agenda. Indeed, we have pushed hard for both of these actions. The SPDC are a threat to international security and peace.

Further, we have positive relationships with many U.S. officials, which we hope will continue.

Some people might ask: why not keep trying, for yet another year. The answer to this is that nothing will change. The problems are systemic. We are certainly willing to keep talking, but we also have to move on, to find ways to create democratic change as soon as possible. People in Burma are dying, they are being killed – murdered – by the SPDC, every day. If we press hard now, lives can be saved.

Proof of our contention is the following: the Burma democracy movement is weak, because its funding sources, including the U.S., want it that way. They will provide money for refugees, or schools, or AIDS, and for offices, cars, plane tickets and seminars. But this is not real Section 8 funding. Almost no money is given for true democracy initiatives, on the ground inside Burma. If all the money that is being given was redirected to the active pursuit of democracy, Burma would be free within a year.

As the above analysis demonstrates, there are many hurdles, some possibly insurmountable, to running an effective lobbying campaign. To these we must add the general functioning of the United States Government, and the conduct of its foreign policy, under the Bush Administration.

First, and there is no way to say this politely, the Administration is incompetent. The obvious examples are the Iraq war (including its diversion of resources from Afghanistan and the search for Osama bin Laden), which was done for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. Had the U.S., from the beginning, said that its objective was to liberate the people of Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein (as opposed to the reason given, the defense of America, using the false claim of weapons of mass destruction), we likely would have supported it.

For Burma, though, the more significant failure is the Administration’s behavior regarding China and North Korea. For the latter, there is no proof that the North Korean regime actually has functioning nuclear weapons. But the U.S. is acting as if this is proven, we believe as an excuse not to take strong steps. Even more, the entire crisis was orchestrated by the Chinese, to open a new pressure front against America while it was preoccupied with Iraq. Now the U.S. is looking to China for help. (This is ridiculous.)

The U.S. apparently has no grasp of how the Chinese leaders negotiate. On any issue, including Taiwan and trade (and likely behind closed doors, Burma), they threaten the most extreme measures (e.g., the invasion of Taiwan) as a means to intimidate. The only effective response to this tactic is to stand strong. You must call their bluff, and then the Chinese will back down. But westerners, including the U.S. and Europe, who are not used to the tactic, and who are weak, are intimidated and give in.

Secondly, the Administration is dishonest. The implications of personal responsibility, which conservatives trumpet so loudly (and which is also a core element of Dictator Watch’s philosophy), include:

1. You should do what you say, and finish what you start. (The U.S. says that it is dedicated to democracy in Burma, but sanctions are only the first step. There has been no follow-through.)

2. You must apologize when you are wrong, and then do your best to make up for it. (The current administration does not admit to any mistakes.)

More deeply, the government is unprincipled: only lip service is given to democracy. The leaders of the United States do not understand democracy. (This extends to the Democrats as well.) They do not understand that democracy is self-government, government by the people, not rule by an elite who assume that they have the mandate to do whatever they want. The United States now functions as a dictatorship in the service of the few. Further, there is no respect for dissent, openness, and accountability. The Bush Administration shuts down dissent, is making all government operations secret, and never accepts responsibility.

(The general reason for this state of affairs is that by the time people get to positions of real power in D.C., they have acted unethically so many times, or sat by and watched while others – their superiors – did, that they have completely lost their moral compass. They become functionally unable to serve: elected officials are “social servants.”)

Lastly, and pragmatically, the U.S. refuses to act with vigor on Burma not only because it defers to China on the issue, but more importantly because of Thailand. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra wants the SPDC to remain in power. Thailand is a long standing American ally, so the U.S. consents to his wishes.

That’s it.

If Thaksin were gone, and his replacement as Prime Minister re-instituted the buffer policy and gave a green light to U.S. assistance to Burma’s ethnic resistance forces, Washington no doubt would readily agree. The border, and across the border, would be filled with U.S. military units.

(A darker view is that the U.S. goes along with Thaksin because it wants U.S. companies to get a share of Thai corruption. Thailand, a kleptocracy, is one of the top organized crime syndicates on the planet.)

U.S. support is remarkable since it constitutes complicity with Thai human rights abuses. The U.S. is actively aiding Thaksin’s objectives by cleaning up the mess created by the SPDC. This includes accepting the Persons of Concern for resettlement, thereby shutting down border based democracy organizations; and its new willingness, signaled with the granting of Priority Three status, to accept large numbers of Burmese refugees.

We also have reliable information about two instances, in the last three months, where escaped Burma Army child soldiers were given by Thai authorities back to the SPDC, and likely death. In one case, a Burma Army officer forcibly struck one of the children at the handover, reportedly causing his Thai counterpart to grimace.

Thailand has an agreement to return all escaped Burma Army soldiers. Since the Burma Army, technically, does not have child soldiers – all enlistments of such children use falsified dates of birth – they are returned as well.

(The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has not stood up to this practice, or other forms of mistreatment of refugees. Our position is that UNHCR should demand that the Thais cease and desist, and if the Thaksin Administration refuses, UNHCR should publicly depart from the country. We also conducted a lobbying campaign focused on the U.N., to no effect. The U.N. is an abject failure. The United States should walk away from the organization – let them have the headquarters building in New York if they want it. The U.S. should halt all funding to the U.N., and redirect it to the newly formed Community of Democracies.)

Conclusion for Burma

Earlier I said that lobbying was difficult and expensive, and that it took a lot of time. We don’t have a lot of time. The SPDC is working diligently and quietly to secure nuclear power, from Russia and North Korea (and also likely using the Pakistani nuclear experts that took refuge in the country a few years ago). The generals’ ultimate goal is a nuclear weapons capability. They understand that this would make them unassailable.

What you are trying to achieve determines your approach. Will lobbying the United States bring democracy to Burma? At this time, the answer is no. There must be an alternative.

A hidden fault of democracy is that everyone, or everyone with power, may agree on a particular course of action, for example, for Burma, that the best approach is to talk to and engage the SPDC. However, this does not mean that it will work. Consensus can be wrong.

Because I, personally, am not Burmese, I do not have the right to tell the people of the country that they must rebel. However, I feel compelled to discuss the issue.

It is interesting that a strong revolutionary movement has not developed in Burma’s major cities. I believe that we should not confuse the tactic of non-violence, which is admirable, with sitting and waiting, i.e., inaction.

I can also say that if you want real U.S. help (and media attention), you must earn it. You must make Washington pay attention. You must make some noise.

The United States won’t care about Burma until its people rebel. But what do I mean by rebel? In my last article I bemoaned the fact that there was little political defiance surrounding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday. I received an email that asked, what did I mean by political defiance, to which I responded: painting slogans on buildings (Down with Than Shwe!), issuing leaflets and manifestos, and other political acts.

Further, such an effort would not need to be coordinated, since this is difficult and extremely risky. It is arguable that what Burma needs is small groups, for example of lifelong friends, and throughout its towns and villages, who believe that something has to be done: who are dedicated to any reasonably safe opportunity to oppose the regime, and in a public manner, so that other people see it.

There is a saying from the environmental movement that can be adapted for Burma: “What are you doing for democracy in Burma tonight?”

Finally, Dictator Watch is posting the Guide to Underground Work written by the African National Congress (which has already been distributed on a number of Burma lists). This does not mean that we support all of the actions of the ANC, many of which were terrorist. We do not. What is truly noteworthy about the Burma democracy movement is that it has refused to resort to terrorism. The generals are legitimate targets; the people are not. (We reiterate our statement that the bombings in Rangoon earlier this year were almost certainly the work of the regime.) Through such discipline you will be well-suited to establish a working federal structure once the SPDC is defeated. In any case, the ANC guide does not describe, or recommend, specific actions. It is a presentation of surveillance and communication procedures, so you do not get caught.

The guide was first published in installments in an underground ANC publication. The Burma democracy movement would be well served if it were translated and similarly distributed inside Burma.

© Roland O. Watson 2005