A Washington-based research group has released a new report on U.S.-Burma policy that urges the Obama administration to continue efforts to engage the country's military leaders as the tightly ruled country prepares for its first election in two decades.
In its report, the Asia Society outlines a step by step process the U.S. government could use to do more to reach out to the Burmese people, its government and the international community to help promote political and economic reform in the isolated country.
Much of the report's suggested steps hinge largely on how events unfold in the coming months as Burma prepares and holds elections for lawmakers at the state, regional and national level.
The report says that during this period of potential transformation for Burma, the U.S. government should encourage political development toward democratic norms, press the military government to practice good governance and continue to raise concerns about human rights and the condition of political prisoners in the country.
The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development under the former George W. Bush administration, Henrietta Fore, is a co-chair of the report. She says that even under the best of circumstances the social, political and economic transformation necessary to support a stable democracy in Burma will take decades to achieve.
"The chances of instability and internal strife as the country goes through this process is very high. Reform will require an international community more broadly to keep this process moving forward," Fore said.
Burma has been ruled by a military government for most of the past six decades, since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948.
The last time the country's military leaders agreed to hold elections was in 1990. During that race, the opposition National League for Democracy won, but the military refused to recognize the results of the race.
Its party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been held under some form of detention for 14 of the past 20 years.
Earlier this week, the NLD announced that it was going to boycott the upcoming elections. Burma's criticized election laws left the party with little choice but to step aside. It now faces dissolution.
Retired Army General Wesley Clark, a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and co-chair of the report, says this development has made U.S. engagement even more important.
"The NLD's recent decision not to participate in the upcoming elections obviously complicates such outreach. But the U.S. needs to redouble its efforts to ensure that it has access to democratic voices within Burma," Clark said.
He says one thing the U.S. government can do now to facilitate more engagement is appoint a special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.
Burma's government has yet to set a date for its elections this year, and it is unclear whether the NLD dissolution will lead to the formation of new opposition parties.
The country's election laws prohibit registered parties from having prisoners in their ranks. Such a regulation made it impossible for Aung San Suu Kyi and other party officials to participate. The laws also require parties to swear allegiance to the 2008 Constitution, which guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats in the elections regardless of results.
Former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, Priscilla Clapp, says while the military wants to use the elections to prolong its control over the public, the vote will begin a process that will help the Burmese people begin to think about governing themselves and taking their fate into their own hands.
"To have parliaments you have to have some degree of debate, even the constitution recognizes that. So they are going to have to start somewhere. They will have to allow some degree of debate. Right now they allow absolutely none. They allow no debate. No suggestion that the government is doing anything wrong, but that is going to have to change when you get into a parliamentary system," Clapp said.
The Asia Society report lays out what it feels are three stages to progress in helping promote reform in the country - measures that can be pursued now and after Burma holds its parliamentary elections this year, actions to be taken when signs of change are taking place and then when real progress has been demonstrated for a sustained period of time.
Last September, the administration of President Barack Obama announced a new U.S. policy toward Burma that seeks pragmatic engagement with the country over the use of isolation and sanctions.
Experts say the approach has yet to result in any opening up of the Burmese government to Washington. In its report, the Asia Society notes the United States must realize its ability to solve Burma's problems and influence its governance is extremely limited.
As for trade and investment sanctions, the group says Washington should not remove them until Burma releases Aung San Suu Kyi and allows full participation in the political process.