Reconfiguring the Debate on Engagement

Author: Ken MacLean


For the past fifteen years, the question of whether it was possible to “engage” Burma's successive military regimes to achieve constructive change has dominated policy discussions in regional and international forums. This article examines how this question has structured the terms of the debate and prevented a compromise position that might have averted the present humanitarian crisis. Information drawn from research conducted with a wide range of Burmese pro-democracy activists based in Thailand also indicates that this humanitarian crisis has thrown many time-honored positions on engagement into flux. The growing diversity of viewpoints has produced several strategies to address the immense problems confronting the country. Regardless of which strategy is favored, three issues are of importance to activists: the changing nature of political legitimacy in the Burmese context; the right of exiles to participate in the country's affairs; and the problems associated with the military's continuing use of forced labor. This article examines these issues against the backdrop of shifting regional and international interests, with special attention focused on the viewpoints of expatriate Burmese who support a significant increase in different forms of cross-border aid, while maintaining sanctions on the regime. The article warns that this approach may actually be worse than the problems it seeks to solve. Evidence is presented to illustrate how the possibility of resuming international aid to Burma has increased political factionalism and ethnic divisions among different expatriate groups rather than resolving these long-standing problems.
Countries: Burma | China

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September 2004
© Jeff Kingston