150. Telegram From the Embassy in Burma to the Department of State1

447. For EA only. Subj: . . . And . . . Oh Yes, Burma in the Post Vietnam Era. Ref: State 25347.2

1. Fortunately, in the years since Bill Sullivan had the job,3 attention spans of Burma Desk Officers seem to have lengthened (though we will still probably place fewer demands on time of the new Assistant Secretary than most of his other charges), so a brief message with a Burma focus may find readership. We deserve it, for we have a few microcosmic situations here that already have or may assume wider implications in the new few years.

2. Our relations with Burma illustrate the way in which, divested of an excessive and meddlesome concern over geopolitics and the security of others, and blessed with a minimum of high-level concern at the political level, the U.S. can pursue rational policies keyed to the national interest without sacrifice of principle or good will.

A. Our major current national interest to which relations with Burma are pertinent is narcotics control as long as the Golden Triangle4 remains a major factor in the international narcotics traffic, and as long as cooperation with the GUB remains a relatively efficient means of attacking the problem. This interest will remain paramount. This Embassy has been at pains to keep it clear to the Burmese that our main interest is in narcotics control, and not in killing insurgents per se (though we may wish them well in their efforts to hold their union together, it is not our civil war).5 If, as seems possible, we can help [Page 553] the GUB to focus more effort on such non-lethal control methods as herbicides, we should do so.

B. Largely a derivative of our dominant interest in narcotics control, our desire to see a more cooperative relationship between Burma and Thailand may come closer to fruition in the next few years, particularly if we remain willing to be clearsighted (even “hardnosed”) as Ambassador Whitehouse has had occasion to be vis-a-vis the Thai in recent months. We have seen some forward motion.

C. In the long run our largest interest in Burma relates to its economic potential, but it may be a very long run. We have had good success in preserving a non-discriminatory share for Americans in such access to Burma’s economy as its government will permit. Neither we nor the Burmese nor anyone else, for that matter, have had much success in raising the level of productivity to the point where equal access has much meaning. There is now hope—but not confidence—that the GUB may relax somewhat the rigidities of its naive and extreme socialist doctrine and adopt a more pragmatic policy. If it does so, and if Burma demonstrates a propensity to raise productivity in response to investment, we should consider offering bilateral aid. But we should look for tangible and quantifiable indicators of heightened productivity.

D. Burma’s neutralism has been to a degree catatonic, and there is some hope—likewise still far from confidence—of a change. Burma could with luck become a kind of third force between Communist Indochina and ASEAN. Burma is developing a rather positive relationship with Vietnam, and, now that the cataclysmic events of 1975 have relieved the GUB of its almost paranoid fear of being sucked into the Indochina war, it is becoming less averse to some kind of relationship with ASEAN.

3. Popular goodwill toward the U.S. and American values is quite palpable, and favorable attitudes are evinced by most government officials—when no one is looking. Burma’s experiences under its naive and extreme form of Socialism appear not to have made it more receptive to Communism, if anything the reverse. One of our policies is to promote goodwill, in good part through educational and cultural exchanges, a policy implement that has thoroughly demonstrated its worth in Burma.

4. The human rights situation in Burma illustrates the complexity of this problem, and the need for a relativistic approach to it. The GUB has a middling record in human rights—a lack of freedoms in some important respects, but no systematic governmental use of torture, for example. So far, we have been able to approach decisions (on armored car sales, etc.) on an ad hoc basis, asking for example, whether the cars were actually likely to be used in suppressing peaceful demonstrators. [Page 554] But if the possibility of an AID program draws nearer, I think it might be helpful to us and to other missions in the region if we could rate the human rights situation in countries of the region on the only meaningful basis—a region-wide comparison of peformance.

5. Finally, at the level of administrative policy, it is high time someone in the Department insisted on a region-wide approach to allocation of resources, to provide a matrix within which the values and priorities stated in individual country PARAs would acquire real significance and real utility in all the many fields to which the resources-allocation approach is applicable.

  1. Source: Department of State, Miscellaneous Old Vietnam Political Records, 1968–1991, Lot 94D430, POLUS Policy on SEA in Post-Vietnam Period 1977. Secret; Stadis; Limdis. Sent for information to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, Tokyo, Vientiane, Beijing, and Hong Kong.
  2. See Document 103.
  3. William Sullivan served as Director of the Office of Burmese Affairs from August 1958 until September 1960.
  4. An area of Thailand, Laos, and Burma that produces large quantities of opium.
  5. Burma had been in a state of civil war since its independence in 1948. Ethnic factions in Burma turned to armed insurgency in an effort to gain control of the country and promote their rights. Since the coup in 1962, the military had controlled the country, but ethnic insurgencies continued to advocate for control and for their rights.