The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

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. What can be done to achieve some positive change in Burma?

A: Well, obviously the UN process, the special envoy and Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro’s recent visit are extremely important because the regime is essentially claiming that they will deal only with the UN and that they reject a regional approach. They certainly reject any intervention from actors like the US or the UK or the EU. But in fact, we need to hold them to that; make it valid that the UN really has a practical role.

Just simply playing “rope-a-dope”—an old phrase from Mohammed Ali’s boxing days, where he would take his opponent and keep on the ropes, and the guy would basically just run out of gas—many people suspect that that’s what they’re doing with envoys who are visiting the state: they let them come in, they give them a minimal program, they don’t give them control of their own schedule, then they make a big deal about rescheduling the next visit and everybody waits for the next visit; then the same thing happens again and again.

That’s not valid and sustainable. So what I’m getting at is that when Ban Ki-moon says, “Patience is running out,” that means the UN system and the actors in the UN, including the Security Council, have to do something else. It’s just not going to go away.

Q: There are persistent reports that Burmese generals are paranoid about the annual Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand.

A: Cobra Gold has changed from being a Cold War-based bilateral exercise designed to help Thailand and the US practice defending against an invasion by land or sea to a multilateral exercise between the US, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore, and with a lot of other observers. It’s all very transparent. And, especially after the tsunami, it aims to practice multilateral approaches to transnational 21st-century issues.

Q: Many Burmese are disappointed with Asean and with Burma’s neighboring countries. They see them as opportunistic neighbors exploiting their natural resources.

A: Burma is constantly a challenge to Asean, because it decided to bring them in 10 years ago, and Burma has disappointed in every way possible. So now they’re stuck with them; and it’s a stain on Asean’s credibility. We talk about Burma with Asean representatives every time we meet, but we also recognize that there are other players—Delhi and Beijing.

Q: A large number of Burmese refugees live in Thailand and, over the last decades, more and more migrant workers have entered the country. This creates security problems and very uncertain futures. How do you see Thai policy toward the Burmese living here?

A: Thai policies toward people fleeing persecution and worse from their neighbors over the last 35 years have been very open and moral and proper, considering that, at the end of the day, even with the greatest amounts of international assistance and cash, and the UN agencies and everything else, the burden still falls on Thailand.

A less moral society might say: “Look. This is just ridiculous! We don’t need to be the home to millions and millions of people from other countries” and simply close their borders and/or push people back. 

While everyone has been very attentive over the decades to rumors that there were going to be major push-backs, whether it was Cambodians, Vietnamese, Lao of  various types, or Burmese of various types, Thailand’s record is, in fact, pretty good on that score.

There have been very few examples of the Thais being resistant to new inflows or dealing negatively with people. It’s a very sensitive issue for Thailand and, of course, they have to watch that 2,400-km border very carefully.
Q: What is your message to Burmese citizens who want to be friends of America?

A: We are watching. Stay the course. We know the suffering. We will never change our policy about what is right for Burma. I’m convinced that the change will come, and I hope it comes quickly.

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