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Outposts of Tyranny: Burma

Professor David I. Steinberg
Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University
Friday, April 22, 2005; 1:00 PM

In January, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to consider her nomination for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice named the nations of Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Burma, North Korea, and Zimbabwe as "outposts of tyranny."

Rice's nomination speech may have given an insight into her foreign policy agenda for the next four years. "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom," she said. Rice Stays Close to Bush Policies In Hearing (The Post, Jan. 18)

Professor David I. Steinberg , Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, was online Friday, April 22, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss human rights violations and democracy building efforts in Burma.

Dr. Steinberg was a member of the Senior Foreign Service; U.S. Agency for International Development (AID); Department of State, Director for Technical Assistance in Asia and the Middle East, and Director for Philippines, Thailand, and Burma Affairs. He is the author of ten books including, Burma: The State of Myanmar (2002) and The Future of Burma: Crisis and Choice in Myanmar (1990).

This is the last in a six part series focusing on the nations Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named "outposts of tyranny" and the specific issues that have caused tensions with the U.S. Authors, journalists, representatives from foreign policy think tanks, and professors will take questions from readers.A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


David Steinberg: Greetings. I am pleased to be here, and hope to have a good dialogue on Burma/Myanmar


Bethesda, Md.: It's impressive that Dr. Rice included Burma on her "outposts of tyranny" list -- when our vice president, Dick Cheney, defended the petroleum consortium that for years has colluded in the human rights violations there. Cheney has also consistently lobbied hard against sanctions.

A federal judge found a year ago that Unocal knew of the forced labor, torture and rape used on their Yadana pipeline project, and benefited from it. Under Cheney as CEO, Halliburton also collaborated with the government on the pipeline. Kudos, then, to Dr. Rice for admitting to Burma's record despite Mr. Cheney's blood-for-profits values. Maybe there is a shred of shame in that administration yet.

David Steinberg: The 'outpost of tyranny' is an unfortunate phrase because it does not contribute to where the US administration wants to go. If you want to negotiate change, then why start with instating the group to which you want to negotiate. Of course, we want a better government in Burma, but how to get there is the question.

I have argued against sanctions from the beginning because I believed that the Burmese had to stand up to the US for their own political legitimacy, and that once sanctions are imposed, they are tough to eliminate. Business does not like sanctions, but the While House or the State Dept., in my view, no longer makes Burma policy--it is the Congress and then only a few influential members.



Norristown, Pa.: Policy trade off question. Why do we spend resources trying to tone down the evils of Burma when we could be trying to build one of the African nations? We would see better results for our spending if we don't have to fight the entrenched government, and I can't see why we spend our limited resources on places where it's more difficult to improve.

David Steinberg: The US thinks that Burma is not important to us except in human rights terms. I think that is inaccurate. There are strategic interests: Burma flanks the China-India border and is important to both countries that are likely to be rivals. Thailand is our treaty ally, and the mismanagement in Burma pours over the border into Thailand through AIDS, malaria, narcotics, over 1 million illegal workers etc. We should be seriously concerned, but it is off our radar screen.


London, UK: My impression is that the deadlock between the opposition and the government can only be defused with a consensus initiated by the opposition party on a condition that the regime is most likely to agree to yet provide a platform for a transition of power. Since the power is so uprooted, any changes will be gradual, and the opposition should take note of that. There can hardly exist a more concerted international pressure in future, unless the U.S. or the E.U decides to appoint a special envoy on Burma. The time to make a consensus is from now till 2006.

David Steinberg: Compromise is terribly difficult in Burma now. The military hates the oppositions and especially Aung San Suu Kyi, while she feels empowered to take over because not only of the opposition victory in the May 1990 elections (she was under house arrest at that time), but also because her father was the George Washington of Burma/ Compromise is important, but let us not lose sight of the fact that the most important problem facing the country in the past and in the future is not the political change, but rather the question of sharing power between the Burmese majority of 2/3 of the population and the minorities along the borders. This is the critical issue.


Milwaukee, Wisc.: News reports suggest that Chevron-Texaco, after completing its acquisition of Unocal, will sell Unocal's natural gas interests in Myanmar, likely to a Thai or Chinese firm. Don't you agree that the Thai or Chinese firms would be less responsive to human rights concerns than Unocal was? Wouldn't this represent a major defeat for the human rights groups?

David Steinberg: I agree that Unocal or other such large multinational corporations would likely pay more attention to the rights of labor than smaller firms, such as those from Thailand or China that have interest only in exploitation of cheap, literate, and controlled labor force. I have not visited the pipeline to Thailand, but since the military had to clear the area, no doubt they were brutal (as they have been in other circumstances even when they might to the right thing conceptually. I know Unocal built a health center that the US Embassy said was very good and that many from the whole region attend.


Washington, D.C.: Who is this rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU), who attacked a convoy today in Burma? What are their aims?

David Steinberg: The Karen National Union (KNU) is an ethnic group that has been fighting all Burmese governments since 1949--perhaps the longest insurrection in the world. They originally wanted independence for their people, and thought that the British colonials sort of unofficially promised this to them. That seems an issue. However, they have been fighting in the jungle along the Thai border, and now there are efforts to have some sort of autonomous region in that area. There is a supposed cease-fire in effect at the moment, and negotiations drag on. The KNU is split--some want an accommodation with the Burmese, some not. Many of the KNU in revolt are Christians and the Burmese government is Buddhist (89% of the country. This is basically the last of the major ethnic rebellions--the government has cease-fires with about 17 other groups.


New York, N.Y.: What is the significance of Burma as the head of ASEAN in 2006, and what are other nations doing to prevent the nation from assuming leadership of the organization?

David Steinberg: In rotation, Burma is to chair ASEAN in 2006. The US was opposed (wrongly I think) to Burma getting in the first place in July 1997, but once in, the ASEAN states have been trying to give Burma time to reform with drafting a new constitution and having a referendum on it. Following that, there will be a new 'civilianized' government that the military will dominate. But Burma has to do something before 2006, and I would guess they will do the minimum to satisfy ASEAN, which is a new constitution and a referendum, which they will win because they control the mass-mobilization organizations in the state. There are some ASEAN parliamentarians who are against Burma chairing the meeting, but they have limited power. Every state of ASEAN has had political problems and been dictatorships at one time (four still are), so their record is not one to enable them to complain too much.


Arlington, Va.: Burma is just one of many Southeast Asian nations that restrict press freedoms. Why is it singled out as "tyrannical?

David Steinberg: That is an excellent question. The basic point is that the military (stupidly in their own terms) held an election that they lost, and then they did not honor it, but the attention that is focused on Burma is really on Aung San Suu Kyi, whom I know and who has become an icon, and cannot be criticized. This is an issue.


washingtonpost.com: There was actually an article recently on an indigenous group in Burma and how the current dictatorship and the tsunami may have affected its way of life.The World is Closing in on the Moken Way of Life (National Geographic Magazine, April 2005)


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I know this may be a tired question, but what about tsunami relief in Burma? Do we know what they are doing in terms of recovery, or were they not badly hit?

David Steinberg: It seems that the tsunami did not hit Burma badly, or so they said, but of course the military has hushed up any such problems of a natural nature for many years. The UNICEF represented visited the area, and she is very good and trustworthy, and so the damage was limited there. The one place that has not been mentioned in the press are the Cocos Islands in the Andaman Sea which is a penal colony and naval base for the Burmese, and no foreigners are allowed in. If a place were hit, I think that would be the most vulnerable.


David Steinberg: Some questions are locked, but someone asked about the brutality of the regime. I had some arguments with Congressman Rohrabacher who said they were all thugs, and I said that then all those in the executive committee of Suu Kyi were also thugs since they all were high up in the military. There are thugs, and there are terribly insulated people, but there are also among them people with whom one can talk and who are receptive to change. Why cut them off without trying to see what might be done? I do not condone brutality in any form. I just think that to get a better government, you had better talk to these people. I start, always, with the plight of the Burmese people.


Washington, D.C.: What is China's relationship with Burma? Are they trading partners? Or is China wary of the Burmese government as being a loose cannon?

David Steinberg: China is not just a trading partner. China has supplied $2 billion in arms to Burma. They have helped build all kinds of infrastructure, including ports that can give China access to the Bay of Bengal. There are over 1 million illegal Chinese in Burma who control much of the private sector economy, The Chinese train lost of Burmese. I once told military intelligence that Burma had the worst newspapers in the world, and the colonel said that I was right, but that it was the fault of the US because we cut them off and they trained people in China. A cute answer, but not quite accurate.


washingtonpost.com: From Prof. Steinberg: I don't want to monopolize the conversation, but since there is silence I would like to say that I would hope that in the media and around Washington and academic centers one could have real debates on the situation there and on policy responses to it. This has been very difficult to do because as we can argue about the best policy toward North Korea or Iraq etc., but there does not seem to be the same interest or freedom to do the same thing on Burma.
David Steinberg: I want to see more grassroots democratic development. I see it in some areas among some groups, such as some of the Kachin, and not in others. The real issue for the US and others is to try to help civil society in Burma--that is, the non-governmental groups on which eventually you build pluralism and democracy.


washingtonpost.com: That's all for today. Thanks for participating in this discussion.


The "Outposts of Tyranny" Series
North Korea


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