World View : Myanmar a Case Study of U.S. Foreign-Policy Dilemmas : A divided Administration, worried about drug trade, shifts its emphasis from human rights to cooperation with the military regime.


Myanmar is a small country by Asian standards, a mere 42 million people, remote and largely out of the American consciousness. Yet it shows in microcosm the difficulties that have bedeviled the United States around the world since the end of the Cold War.

Myanmar’s military regime, which seized power in 1988 and voided the results of a popular election two years later, presented a challenge to the new Clinton Administration. In its first 18 months in office, the Administration followed a clear policy of seeking the regime’s resignation or ouster.

“I call on the regime to honor the results of the 1990 election,” President Clinton declared as recently as July. Instead, the junta has kept Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition that won that balloting, under detention.

But over the past two months, the Clinton Administration has suddenly shifted course.


It sent the first senior U.S. emissary in five years to talk to the military regime in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. And in public statements, Administration officials stopped calling upon the regime to honor the 1990 election, instead emphasizing more modest political goals, such as reconciliation with Myanmar’s democratic forces.

Administration officials, insisting that they are not softening their policy, warn that if the regime does not reciprocate, the United States could get tougher on Myanmar than it was before. Yet the focus of U.S. policy now is to deal with a regime the United States had attacked for five years as illegitimate.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher explained on a recent trip to Southeast Asia that the purpose was “to explore whether we should join the other nations of this region in trying to improve relations” with the Myanmar leadership, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council.

What happened? The turnabout was brought about by many of the same factors that have undercut U.S. foreign policy in other areas, from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia to China and Cuba:


* Now that the Soviet threat no longer preoccupies American policy-makers, the U.S. government has become divided, unable to set priorities and stick to them. The Administration was torn between commerce and human rights in China and between security ties and economic interests in Japan. In Myanmar the issues are drug enforcement and human rights. “We cannot maintain the status quo on Burma,” Clinton Administration drug czar Lee P. Brown said, acknowledging a desire to obtain the cooperation of Myanmar’s military regime in combatting drug traffickers.

* The Administration has had far less support on policy from its traditional allies than during the Cold War, a problem illustrated most vividly by the split with France and Britain over policy toward Bosnia. Likewise in Myanmar, Australia and the European Union broke ranks with the U.S. policy of isolating the military regime.

* Some U.S. adversaries have found that they can withstand American diplomatic pressure and even threatened military force if they are patient. Just as Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid outlasted a U.S. campaign to capture him, so have Myanmar’s leaders triumphed over Administration efforts to oust them.

The story of Myanmar serves as a case study in these problems, showing how the Administration found itself unable to stick to its foreign policy and enforce it.


After Myanmar’s military regime refused to abide by the 1990 elections and step down, the Bush Administration adopted tough measures aimed at isolating it. The United States ended all non-humanitarian aid to Myanmar, cut off anti-narcotics money, suspended trade benefits and blocked loans to Myanmar by international institutions such as the World Bank.

When other Southeast Asian nations urged a policy of dialogue and “constructive engagement” with the regime, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III turned them down. “At some point, I think the military leadership in Burma has got to be called with respect to their continuing refusal to permit democracy to be implemented there,” Baker said two years ago.

The Clinton Administration embraced these policies and stepped up the rhetoric, portraying Myanmar as one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. But within the U.S. government, drug enforcement officials were unhappy with that approach.

Myanmar, cited as the world’s largest source of heroin and opium, produced about 2,900 tons of opium poppies last year, mostly in remote border areas.


“Sixty percent of the heroin in the United States is from Southeast Asia, and Burma is the biggest source,” said Brown, director of the White House Office on Drug Control Policy. “To put it mildly, we don’t have good diplomatic relations with Burma.”

State Department officials contend that it would be futile to obtain the regime’s cooperation in combatting drugs because it does not control the growing areas. “It is unlikely that the heroin trade can be curtailed without fundamental political change in Burma,” Thomas C. Hubbard, deputy assistant secretary of state, testified in June. “The promoting of democracy in Burma is ultimately the best way to achieve our counter-narcotics objectives.”

Brown’s office and the Drug Enforcement Administration argue that the regime’s cooperation is crucial to stemming the flow of drugs from Myanmar. One Washington-based diplomat described U.S. drug personnel as in a “virtual mutiny” from the policy of isolating Myanmar.

Within the U.S. government, drug officials are now said to be pressing hard to resume giving the Myanmar government money to combat drugs.


While pressure was mounting within the U.S. government for changes in its Myanmar policy, the Administration last summer was jolted by a surprise from another source: its closest allies.

For years, whenever the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) called for an end to international policies aimed at isolating Myanmar, it met opposition from a coalition of the United States, European countries, Canada and Australia.

But in July, at a meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, the foreign ministers of Australia, the European Union, Canada and New Zealand all backed some form of dialogue with the regime, leaving Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to sit in silence.

A diplomat from one of the United States’ allies admits that the desire for commerce was a factor. “The embargo (against Myanmar) had been in effect for several years, and it wasn’t having much of an impact,” the diplomat said. “Frankly, there is oil in Burma, there are gas fields, and there are other business prospects.”


Goaded by drug enforcement personnel from the inside and its allies abroad, the Administration dispatched a delegation headed by State Department official Hubbard to Myanmar in October.

The U.S. delegation met for three hours with Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the regime’s chief of intelligence. “We did ask for a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and with other prisoners of conscience, and, to our regret, we were not granted permission to see them,” Hubbard said afterward.

Both the regime and Administration critics have suggested that the recent U.S. actions may have given Myanmar’s military regime an appearance of legitimacy.

“Now is not the time to ease up the pressure” on the regime, said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, Asia. “You have a renegade military regime tightening its grip on power. But international pressure is having an effect, and (the regime) cannot afford to be isolated. Other governments like Japan will follow what the United States does.”


In a recent interview in Yangon, Khin Nyunt expressed hope that Hubbard’s visit would lead to a resumption of U.S. aid to fight narcotics. “Mr. Hubbard came to our country to develop relations with our country,” he pointed out. “We hope that the relations that were cooled could warm and develop further.”

Clinton Administration officials say relations will not improve unless the regime relaxes its grip on the country and releases Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

One Administration policy-maker listed granting the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Myanmar’s prisons, letting a top U.N. official meet with Suu Kyi, abolishing forced labor, prosecuting drug traffickers, combatting money laundering and honoring an extradition treaty with the United States as positive actions the military regime could take.

While American human rights groups believe the Administration has already gone too far in its opening to Myanmar, U.S. drug enforcement officials believe the policy has not changed enough. “Yes, we have to be very concerned about human rights” in Myanmar, Brown said in an interview. “But human rights is an issue in this country for victims of drug abuse.”


Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington and special correspondent Abby Tan in Yangon contributed to this report.