June 12, 2008, Priscilla Clapp, Kyi May Kaung Kaung and David Steinberg

(Click to enlarge) On June 12, 2008, discussants Amb. Priscilla Clapp, Dr. Kyi May Kaung, and David Steinberg speak on Burma's current state and the next steps for international engagement.

After the Storm: Rethinking International Engagement in Post-Cyclone Burma

( Washington, DC) June 12— Following the tragic effects of Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese people have been attempting a return to normal everyday life. However, the process of doing so has been fraught with challenges, as citizens find themselves working against their own government, a military-backed regime that has sought to maintain total political control amidst the chaos. During this luncheon seminar, discussants Ambassador (ret.) Priscilla Clapp, independent scholar Dr. Kyi May Kaung, and Professor David Steinberg of Georgetown University spoke about the effects cyclone Nargis has had on Burmese society, as well as the future of international engagement with this country.

Ambassador Clapp began the discussion by describing the current state of devastation in Burma. Although citizens now live in deplorable conditions and are experiencing food shortages, there is some hope for change. Dealing with this disaster has created a network of NGOs, local organizations, Burmese civil society groups, and doctors, which have united to help citizens in the Irawaddy delta. Barriers between different religious groups have also dissolved, as Buddhist monks, Christians, and Muslims coordinated relief activities—often working at cross-purposes with the ruling Burmese junta. Private donors and “crony companies” also generously helped fund these various networks of aid.

During the relief period, the Burmese government has been obstructive at the high-ranking official level, yet moderately helpful on the local level. To better serve those in need, Clapp explained that the social networks were able to get around official regulations—a sign that the Burmese people indeed have the capacity to unite and defy the government. The regime’s lack of regard for humanity post-Nargis and inability to quell Buddhist protests during fall of 2007 has seriously wounded its legitimacy. The numerous offers of aid from the U.S. government, and noteworthy efforts made to reach out to the Burmese leaders, have achieved little, as Clapp reports that suspicion of a U.S. conspiracy with opposition leaders endures.

Offering a macro-view of the Burmese situation, discussant Dr. Kyi May Kaung highlighted that the military-ruled government has not changed in character over time and cannot fulfill the needs of its citizens, thus making change necessary. She also stated that the hard-hit Irawaddy delta was home to many opposition supporters. When Nargis struck one week before the proposed constitutional referendum, the government’s response to the natural disaster lacked sympathy and seemed almost punitive in nature. Kaung stated that in her view it is important for the international community to see UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visits and other official surveys of the disaster areas for what they truly are: namely, public relations stunts. She voiced the need for the United States to re-think its Burma strategy so that Burmese leaders are held accountable for their mismanagement of the country.

In addition to the economic, social, political, and minority crises that Burma has been experiencing, Professor David Steinberg stated that the post-cyclone period has uncovered a military crisis. The Burmese military lacks the capacity to plan, fund, and facilitate a proper recovery effort, and, worse yet, its top leaders are unaware of the country’s true state. Even more troubling is the government’s consistent refusal of international aid, which demonstrates its immense fear of foreign powers, especially the U.S. and international organizations, such as the United Nations and ASEAN’s Asian Regional Forum (ARF). Steinberg believes that the U.S. should not be overly optimistic, and should not seek a leading role in effecting change in a way that justifies the junta’s fear of foreigners. However, he argued that major political change must first be demanded by the people.