Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and author of Burma and Nuclear Proliferation: Policies and Perceptions.
Lord Palmerston said nearly 200 years ago that countries have no eternal allies or perpetual enemies, only eternal and perpetual interests. Whether or not this is true, one always looks in vain for consistency in the conduct of international relations. Burma-watchers have been reminded of this fact by the world's decisive response to developments in Libya.
In February, the UN Security Council effectively invoked the 'responsibility to protect' (R2P) doctrine to justify military intervention in Libya. The UNSC referred the Libyan case to the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council endorsed an International Commission of Inquiry. President Obama later stated that 'left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his own people. Many thousands could die'.
Burma activists were quick to ask why similar actions could not be taken against that country. After all, almost every criticism made of the Libyan regime could be levelled equally strongly at the military-dominated government in Naypyidaw.
Indeed, as one observer pointed out, 'much of the language used in the [Libya] resolution has for many years featured almost word for word in UN General Assembly resolutions on Burma, and reports from the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma'.
According to opposition websites, people inside Burma watched in disbelief at how quickly the UN Secretary-General and Security Council acted after Qadhafi's attacks on Libyan civilians. They contrasted this response with the consistent lack of international action to prevent military operations against unarmed demonstrators and ethnic minorities in Burma, which since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising have probably resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and forced hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighbouring countries.
Several commentators have since pointed out that the rare consensus in the UNSC supporting international action against Libya was most unlikely to be repeated in the event of a similar proposal to intervene in Burma. The political and strategic circumstances — China's national interests in particular — are quite different. Nor would ASEAN endorse an armed attack against a fellow member. There are also questions over the feasibility of an extended multinational military operation against a country like Burma, particularly if it were opposed by regional countries.
Another critical difference between Libya and Burma — one that has been noted by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — is that the Libyan armed forces are divided in their loyalties. Despite regime fears that the Middle Eastern 'contagion' might spread to Burma, prompting censorship of the protests in the local news media, there have been no signs that significant elements in the Burmese armed forces are ready to back the opposition movement and bring down the hybrid military/civilian government that was installed earlier this year.
Some Burma activist groups have condemned the uneven application of the R2P doctrine as blatant hypocrisy by Western countries devoted to their own narrow interests. Yet, there have always been inconsistencies in the Burma policies of both national governments and international organisations. For example, Burma is currently the target of wide-ranging sanctions that are aimed at few other countries, despite the fact that many — including a number in Asia — also have authoritarian regimes and long records of human rights abuses.
Such anomalies have rarely been questioned — at least not openly. In a recent Nelson Report, however (not online), Georgetown University's David Steinberg asked why US sanctions against Burma are far harsher and more extensive than those levelled against North Korea. Pyongyang poses a much greater strategic threat to the US — and the wider world — than Naypyidaw. And the situation inside North Korea — in terms of undemocratic governance, human rights abuses, political prisoners, restrictions on civil society and economic mismanagement — are all far worse than in Burma.
There are good reasons for the US to be concerned about Burma, but singling it out for exemplary punishment seems to disprove Palmerston's dictum. For, as US Senator Jim Webb in particular has argued, Burma still engages US national interests. It occupies a sensitive geostrategic position between the nuclear armed giants of India and China. It is a member of ASEAN and plays an important role in the management of several transnational problems. Burma has also developed a defence relationship with North Korea which probably includes ballistic missile sales and possibly even illicit transfers of nuclear technology.
Senior US officials have privately conceded that the main reason for the inconsistency in approach is Aung San Suu Kyi, whose influence on US policy makers has been profound. As Steinberg has also observed, had she not risen to global prominence and captured the popular imagination, it is likely that the US — and other Western countries — would have felt less constrained in considering a wider range of policy options towards Burma. As things currently stand, Washington is unlikely to make any significant changes to its Burma policy without first considering The Lady's views.
All other considerations aside, this fact alone, that one albeit remarkable person can have such an effect on the foreign policy of the world's most powerful country, underlines the futility of looking for consistency in the conduct of international relations.
Photo by Flickr user lewishamdreamer.