America is Watching
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, February 17, 2019

America is Watching

By Ralph Boyce Thursday, January 3, 2008


Ralph Boyce is the outgoing US ambassador to Thailand, where he has served for three years. Ambassador Boyce previously served as deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs from August 1998 to July 2001. The Irrawaddy spoke with Boyce on issues including US policy in the Southeast Asian region and targeted sanctions on the military regime in Burma

Question: Could you explain the current US policy toward the Burmese government?


Ralph Boyce
Answer: I think if you look at a spectrum of international actors who deal with Burma, we are at one end—the toughest end, the harshest sanctions, the most potent rhetoric, the most critical statements of any country. Then you have the spectrum of other countries— various EU countries, Japan, China, India and other Asean members.

Some cynics believe it’s easy for the US to have such a rough policy because we’re so far away, and we have very few economic interests in Burma.

What I think is that our policy is important for the people who are struggling inside Burma. We don’t follow policy necessarily to try to impact the generals; they are fairly impervious—impermeable even— to outside pressure, for good or bad, it seems.

US policy is not so much designed to affect the generals as it is to give heart to the people inside who are struggling.
Q: Recently, the new Asean Secretary General, Surin Pitsuwan, called for more US involvement in the region to counterbalance the influence of China. However, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled planned visits to the Asean meetings.
How do you intend to restore your influence in the region?

A: First of all, I think it would be a misinterpretation to suggest that Secretary Rice’s inability to attend the last two or three meetings was because of a lack of attentiveness. We have a lot on our policy agenda, and there are geographic and time constraints that make it a huge investment for a US Secretary to come out for an Asean meeting. It’s not because we don’t take Asean seriously. I think this administration has upgraded attention to Asean significantly—as an institution, to the region and to the bilateral relationships we have with each of the countries. So I’m not prepared to accept that it’s symbolic of anything.

How do we upgrade further? Well, I think that Chinese diplomacy is very active in the region, as it should be. Some people call it the emergence of China; it’s really the re-emergence of China. It’s a more natural state of things. The US was getting used to a very unusual period in world history where they were the only world power who was active. For whatever reason, after the Second World War all the other major powers were preoccupied internally or elsewhere, and so, for almost 50 years, the US was the preeminent power in the region.

And that’s changed: it’s a restoration of the natural order of things—Japan, Asean and India have stood up and China has come back. What it means to the US is that it’s more challenging for us to maintain our influence and, if other countries are going to be more active in the region, it means that we have to be more active too.

Q: Is the administration going to expand the targeted sanctions? Because there are
many more businessmen and cronies who are not on the recent US sanctions list.

A: I have been very encouraged with the innovations that have been shown since September, in terms of the targeted sanctions, for example. A lot of people thought that with the second round of US sanctions—10 years or so ago—with the movement from investment to trade, that we kind of exhausted the sanctions arsenal; but it turns out that with the possibility of going after the banking accounts, targeting the gem trade, etc, that there’s some other areas where creative use of sanctions can be explored.

Q: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that patience is running out with Burma
and that Burmese people are feeling increasingly more helpless.

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