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Protest and repression in Burma (Myanmar): What is to be done?

There is no consensus as to what outsiders can or should do in response to the dire situation inside Burma (Myanmar). At least that was the impression left by a vigorous discussion at a standing-room-only event convened by SEAF on October 18, 2007 on "Burma's Crisis: What Should Outsiders Do?"

Reviewing the protests that broke out in Burma in August 2007, swelled into mass demonstrations for democracy, and were brutally repressed by the junta in September-October, Maureen Aung-Thwin, who heads the Open Society Institute's Burma Project, argued for targeted sanctions. In her view, for example, cutting the flow of tourists to Burma would be less effective than spotlighting China's ties to the junta in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Chinese leaders would be especially sensitive to embarrassment. But if positive change could be achieved through engagement, that too would be worth trying, in her estimation.

Zarni, an author, activist, and visiting research fellow at Oxford University, differed from Aung-Thwin in recommending constructive and coordinated engagement. And whereas she thought that the political situation inside Burma, if it were to change at all, could change rapidly, Zarni argued that "gradual change is the only solution." Yet just as Aung-Thwin welcomed engagement, if that could promote democracy, protect human rights, and reduce the suffering of Burmese, so was Zarni amenable to sanctions if they could effectively serve such ends.

The willingness of both speakers to entertain a range of options reflected the difficulty of inducing change in Burma from the outside, and the corresponding inclination to be eclectic about options. One speaker from the floor went so far as to suggest that only physical intervention from the outside could end the repression. But of all the proposals suggested, that one appeared to be by far the least realistic.

Several speakers urged that China, India, and/or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) be persuaded to put pressure the regime. But there was little faith in the room that Burma's immediate neighbors would sacrifice their economic interests, including access to Burma's natural gas, for the sake of promoting political reform. The sense of pessimism prevailing in the room prompted one person in the audience to suggest later that all one could hope to do was extend humanitarian aid to the Burmese people and wait for political reforms that might never arrive.

Suharto's authoritarian "New Order" regime in Indonesia unraveled quickly in 1998. Aung-Thwin recalled a conversation she had had that year with an expert on Indonesia. He had told her he expected the New Order to last a long time. Three weeks later, Suharto resigned.

Aung-Thwin offered this anecdote by way of suggesting that events in Burma, too, could someday catch observers by surprise. Also surprising, in view of this discussion, would be the effectiveness of any external action, on the full spectrum from sanctions to engagement, to induce the democratization of Burma.

The Asia Society Northern California and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California-Berkeley co-sponsored this event with Stanford's SEAF. Of course none of the three is responsible for the opinions expressed on the panel or during the Q and A.