The promise could be genuine. There have, indeed, been positive political steps taken in Burma over the past two years, not the least of which is the release of more than 800 political prisoners. However, Thein Sein’s promise could also be a way of buying a level of goodwill between now and the end of the year that will gloss over continued government abuses.
There are two ways of approaching this uncertainty.
One is to give Thein Sein and his small circle of “reformers” in Burma the benefit of the doubt and continue to feed them deliverables. There is not much left to give on the U.S. side that doesn’t seriously cut into the requirements of the law. Burma is sanctioned under non-Burma-specific laws such as those targeting trafficking in persons and narcotics. The Administration is already bending the law through waivers and favorable designations in order to support Thein Sein. It is also looking for other, less regulated, ways to support him.
Lack of regulation is one of the things that makes military engagement such an attractive policy option. It’s also the reason Congress has taken to closing military-to-military loopholes. Congress might also want to keep an eye on assistance in areas such as riot control and drug eradication that can result in transfer of real assets that the Burmese military could use in ways the U.S. doesn’t necessarily support.
The other approach is applying pressure to see that the release and other promised reforms actually happen. The Obama Administration has consistently pointed out that the reform process in Burma is not irreversible. At the same time, however, it has not specified what its reaction would be if reforms are reversed—or, more likely, if reforms simply stagnate and promises (such as the release of more political prisoners) are never kept.
A little-covered fact in the U.S. press is that political arrests have continued in Burma. The problem is that whether arrested yesterday or 10 years ago, the law in Burma remains the same. Prisoner releases are conditional on what authorities determine essentially to be good political behavior.
We could easily find ourselves at the end of the year lamenting Burma’s unkept commitments on prisoner releases—and other concerns besides. Or we can apply pressure that encourages the regime to follow through.