Shadow Government

Thugs to hugs: can Burma's army make the transition?

Today, Secretary Clinton begins her historic visit to Burma. In 2009, as the Obama administration was conducting an initial ‘review' of its Burma policy, I cautioned the secretary to be mindful of the nature and history of this thuggish regime. A lot has happened in two years. There have been a number of significant changes and overall there seems to be a sense of cautious optimism about both the changes to date and the potential for this visit to bring more. I too am hopeful, but like many long time Burma watchers, it still feels a bit like we have been down this dead end road before.

Joshua Kurlantzick from the Council on Foreign Relations has articulated some useful indicators for judging the success of the visit. The release of all political prisoners is critical, but Kurlantzick also highlights the importance of the U.S. obtaining regular interaction with senior members of the military. This often overlooked point is probably the key to any real and lasting change in Burma. There will be no freedom or national reconciliation in the country until the Burma army ends its rampant rape, torture, forced labor, forced conscription, pillaging and razing of civilian villages in ethnic minority regions. In contrast to other lauded improvements for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy, the suffering of the ethnic nationalities has only intensified in recent months.

The abuses are so severe, widespread and longstanding that the U.N. has called for an investigation into crimes against humanity. The amount and brutality of the sexual violence against Kachin, Shan, Chin, Mon, Karenni and Karen women and girls is especially disturbing. Over the years, the Women's League of Burma and its member organizations have documented hundreds of incidents of rape and sexual violence, and in their recent letter to Secretary Clinton cited 81 documented cases of rape just since March of this year when Thein Sein became president. When they meet on Thursday, the Secretary hopefully will outline in detail his legal culpability for military crimes on his watch and the importance of taking action to end impunity.

A stated goal of the Secretary's trip is to see how the U.S. can support a transition to democracy in Burma. As part of that process, she would do well to begin a discussion about the importance to any democracy of civilian control of the military. If the trip goes well she might even suggest that on his next trip to Burma, Special Envoy Derek Mitchell bring a relatively high ranking officer from U.S. Pacific Command with him to model successful collaboration in government between civilian diplomats and military officers. Such engagement, soldier to soldier, might even lead to a broader discussion under the auspices of ASEAN, of successful military transitions to civilian control. Thailand and Indonesia especially have relevant experience to share in this regard. Australia has been providing human rights training on and off to senior officials, including military, for years and may be willing to help with such a dialogue. And if Burma's desire for a closer relationship with the U.S. to balance China's influence as some commentators are saying, they might welcome a joint military dialogue with ASEAN, Australia and the U.S., even on sensitive issues like impunity.

Historically, the Burma Army (Tatmadaw), was a well respected institution that produced war heroes like Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Aung San. She has said herself that the military has an important role to play in Burma's future. That role will only be a positive one if the Burma army transitions from its role as the worst perpetrator of violence against its own people to its proper place of honor as the protector of all the people groups of Burma. It's a tall order, but creative diplomacy and careful, strategic engagement could help.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Spain's election and U.S. foreign policy after 2012

Republicans and conservatives may have missed some important news this past weekend as they prepared for the Thanksgiving holiday: the historic victory of the conservative Popular Party (PP) last Sunday in Spain. Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister elect and leader of the PP, won an absolute majority and sent the Socialists to their biggest defeat ever.  If a Republican is elected president in 2012, we will have as strong a friend and ally as we have in Britain on a range of issues.

The change is a welcome one given the collapse in U.S. and Spanish relations between Bush and Zapatero after Zapatero's politically motivated and accelerated withdrawal from Iraq and soon after Afghanistan. As a result of these actions, that many in the United States saw as a betrayal, Spain has not been on the radar screen in Washington since 2004 and basically persona non grata with Republicans and Conservatives. The price paid by Spain has been a more limited influence on the international stage. As a medium sized European country with many interests that overlap with ours, the right leadership will now be in place to work with the U.S. on a range of issues that will confront us over the next three to five years.  Whether they have their economic house in order or not, Spain will have a strong voice in the EU and NATO, influence in the Maghreb and Latin America, U.S.  bases on Spanish territory and a sizeable military that it will be able to deploy in a number of scenarios. 

Most of the media coverage -- as it should be, has been about the economic crisis -- which is going to crowd out almost everything else for the next 12 months until and through the U.S. election.  The economic crisis will certainly mean drastic cuts in its budgets for foreign assistance and military expenditure but its interests will be in line with the United States and expect a Rajoy government to look for ways to work with the U.S. regardless of its financial situation.

The Popular Party leadership has been willing to take principled and politically costly stands in defense of the principles of enlarging human freedom, supporting the Atlantic alliance and defeating terrorism. After finishing Mariano Rajoy's book En Confianza, I was pleased to see a chapter dedicated to his proposed policy of a much stronger relationship with the US. Rajoy has been forced to speak in indirect ways as part of the campaign so his strong and clear views about a stronger Spain-U.S. relationship is notable.  Many readers of this blog will remember that the PP was slated to win the 2004 elections before the terrorist attacks in Madrid.  The terrorists act perpetrated by al Qaeda were designed to sabotage the PP and "punish" Spain for participation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rajoy lost that election and lost again in 2008.  Jose Maria Aznar, the former Prime Minister, famously met with George W. Bush before the Iraq War along with the prime ministers of Portugal and Great Britain.  Ana Palacio, then foreign minister of Spain, chaired the critical sessions of the Security Council in 2003 before the (ultimately unsuccessful) Iraq vote.  Both Jose Maria Aznar and Ana Palacio are remembed well and have many friends in the United States.  Rajoy was the first interior minister from a major ally to meet with U.S. officials after Sept. 11th. 

Opportunities for the United States to work with the new government will include:

  • A long term strategy for supporting "small d" democrats in the Arab Spring: Spain brings unique experiences from its transition to democracy that it can and should bring to bear. Also the changes going are right next door and so if the experiments in democracies fail in Tunisia and elsewhere, expect more immigrants coming to Spain on boats. This possibility will focus minds at the Moncloa (the equivalent of the Spanish White House) on ways to help support the long process needed to make the Arab Spring a success.
  • A constructive actor in a possible Cuba transition: the Castro brothers could take Spanish citizenship at any time through their father and go into exile. The problem is "entrepreneurial" judges like Baltazar Garzon making this difficult
  • A constructive actor in a possible Venezuela transition: Chavez may not have long to live and Spain has a role to play here
  • A vote in NATO, the UN and the EU: Spain could also serve as a constructive actor seeking to ensure Iran does not go nuclear
  • A stronger (if muted) supporter of Israel: Madrid may help push for a lasting Israel-Palestinian peace deal (Hope springs eternal).

There are going to be a number of challenges over the next couple of years where a Rajoy government could be the determining factor in U.S. success or failure just as it was prior to the 2004 defeat of the Popular Party. 

Getty Images