By David O’Hanlon
December 2006

Often the question has been asked, “How is it in U.S. interests to seek an end to the SPDC and the establishment of democracy in Burma?” The democracy movement has been able to explain how it is the right thing to do in order to end mass oppression and human suffering and even been able to demonstrate how it is in the broader interests of the U.S. to seek a transition to democracy. It has until now, however, been unable to explain how it is in U.S. interests as closely defined to seek this outcome. Thus the Burma democracy movement has over the years received correspondingly broad and general support, but has yet to secure the sort of intervention required to topple an albeit weak SPDC regime.

Recent developments, though, mean that it is now possible to answer this question directly.

It is in U.S. interests as closely defined:

1. To block a probable North Korean option to circumvent U.N. sanctions and procure yellowcake from Burma in exchange for Dadong II missiles and other weaponry.

2. To rid the world of an intractable and uncooperative incubator of serious contagious diseases such as HIV and Avian Influenza.

Furthermore, it is in U.S. interests as broadly defined:

1. To remove a major source of regional instability and a permanent anchor on the political and social development of ASEAN.

2. To aid the establishment of another democratic country on China’s border and thereby encourage reform in that country.

3. To eliminate one more dictatorial and unpredictable (i.e., rogue) state from the world and thus place further pressure on those remaining to reform.

4. To remove state protection from Burma’s narcotics industry, which is responsible for flooding its neighbours with mass-produced amphetamines and the most potent heroin in the world.

It has also been asked, “What would replace the SPDC if it were to be removed tomorrow?” The answer of the opposition has always been firm and clear, and it remains so. The NLD under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership is a government in waiting which enjoys a popular mandate, international recognition, and the cooperation of Burma’s ethnic minorities. However, it is now also possible to state that with the removal of the SPDC, the NLD would receive the support and loyalty of the rank and file of the Burma Army. Under the NLD, Burma would probably not be a paradise, but it would be peaceful, stable and united.

Kudos should be given where kudos are due, and in recent years the U.S. has accomplished much progress. In passing into law the “Burma Freedom and Democracy Act,” in successfully lobbying for Burma to be placed on the UNSC agenda, and in placing pressure upon ASEAN to distance itself from the regime, the U.S. has achieved a sea change in the struggle against the SPDC. Similarly, the U.K., through its support of these moves at the U.N., and its intelligent insistence that any such aid that it does distribute inside the country be done in an even handed manner consistent with the Vienna Convention of 1961, has greatly distressed the regime.

Unfortunately, none of these developments, positive and welcome though they are, will in themselves change matters on the ground. Similarly, although they help apply pressure for democratic change they do not actually effect it. Given that, it is therefore directly in U.S. interests to take such proportional action as required to bring about positive results.

It is entirely consistent with U.S. interests and values to materially support cross-border humanitarian efforts. It is time that the United States Government back such efforts directly from USAID funds set aside specifically for the purpose. Indeed, this was envisioned in a U.S. State Department paper in 2005, which spoke of $6 million for cross-border humanitarian relief but which was apparently subverted by the insistence of the International Rescue Committee that no aid should go cross-border where it just happens to be urgently required.

A sum of $6 million placed with a responsible and established cross-border aid organization such as the Free Burma Rangers, to fund such relief projects and partner organizations as they judge worthwhile, will have an enormous and immediate humanitarian benefit. By thus frustrating the SPDC’s capacity to oppress it will also directly cripple the cornerstone of the regime. It will be in effect, “soft” power at its most potent. As a state the U.S. cannot itself directly intervene but it can provide funds to private groups who are willing to do so. It is in the direct interests of the U.S. to do this and to lobby through diplomatic means that such groups continue to be allowed to go about their important work unmolested.

Just as the west cannot be everywhere does not preclude it from being somewhere, so it follows that just because it cannot do everything for Burma that it cannot do something. Fortunately, because of the weakness of the regime the U.S. in particular will not have to do much at all, certainly not entertain the paranoid fantasies of the SPDC, or indeed put any assets at risk, in order to have a tremendously positive effect on the ground and achieve its declared policy goal of helping the Burmese people establish democracy in Burma.