The emerging new US strategy of greater engagement with Burma represents the biggest shift in Washington's policy since the imposition of sanctions more than a decade ago, in protest at the trampling of democracy by the military regime, and its flagrant abuses of human rights.
In many respects this fresh approach, a logical extension of the Obama administration's willingness to reach out to longstanding American foes like Iran and Cuba, makes sense. Sanctions have manifestly failed to achieve their stated goal. Burma's generals have themselves apparently signalled they would welcome a thaw, while the change of policy in Washington has the support of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country's democratic movement, who remains under house arrest. Moreover, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pointed out, shunning all contact with Burma makes it even harder to tackle a host of problems in the region, ranging from refugees, narcotics trafficking and disease control to the risk of nuclear proliferation, embodied by the junta's growing links with North Korea.
Under the new policy, Washington would add carrots to existing sticks. Sanctions, especially "smart sanctions" targeted at senior figures in the regime, would remain in force. But the US will offer greater humanitarian aid – building on the limited assistance provided after last year's Cyclone Nargis that devastated Burma, killing 150,000 people or more – as well as diplomatic engagement. If the regime takes genuine steps to improve its lamentable human rights record and foster democracy, then the sanctions could be eased. The operative word here however is "genuine". The acid test of the junta's sincerity will be the multiparty elections promised in 2010.
If the regime is seeking improved relations, little sign emerged from the speech this week to the United Nations General Assembly by General Thein Sein. The Burmese Prime Minister warned that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. The odds are that the xenophobic regime will blatantly rig these elections to prolong military rule.
The US is right to stretch out a hand to Burma. But if the carrots are ignored, then Washington should be ready to wield an even stronger stick.