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Michael Green and Michael Schiffer

New urgency in Burma

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Green and Michael Schiffer
April 26, 2008

LAST SUMMER, thousands of saffron-robed monks marched peacefully with ordinary citizens to demand freedom and justice for the 51 million people of Burma. They were shot, arrested, and tortured by the military junta that has ruled Burma since 1988, and in response the international community demanded change. The United States and Europe introduced new financial sanctions targeting the regime leadership. Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors issued an unusually harsh statement condemning the brutality. Even Chinese leaders called for "reform" and a "democratic process."

But nine months later the momentum has dissipated. The regime has announced plans to hold a "referendum" on May 10 on a new constitution that conveniently disqualifies Nobel Prize laureate and democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running in future elections. The penalty for opposing the draft constitution is life in prison. Amendments are virtually impossible.

While the United States has rightly labeled the whole affair a "sham," the junta has found just the right appearance of a democratic process to appease China, India, and Thailand, which were all poised to bring even greater pressure on the regime after last year's crackdown.

China, India, and Thailand are worried about HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and drug running along their borders with Burma - all problems that result from the Burmese junta's near-total neglect of its people. But instead of bringing collective pressure to bear on the junta, these countries instead compete for influence and access to natural gas and other resources. Without pressure from key states, the United Nations has reverted to a lowest-common-denominator diplomatic process, with UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari playing along with the referendum as well.

Yet, it is not too late to restore momentum for peaceful change in Burma.

The United States should support the new European Union proposal for an arms embargo. We should also seek agreement from Burma's neighbors on more meaningful benchmarks, including the unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the full participation of the National League for Democracy and other democratic opposition in any constitutional process, and transparency and international monitoring of any referendum.

The United States must demonstrate that it is serious about building an international approach to the Burma problem by following through on promises made to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to hold a summit. That summit was postponed last September and has never been rescheduled. President Bush travels to Asia twice this summer - for the G-8 in Japan in July, and the Olympics in Beijing in August. One of these trips could be used to meet with the leaders of ASEAN - even if Burma, one of ASEAN's 10 members, only sends along a junior representative. While the summit would occur after the referendum, planning for the meeting would get the diplomatic gears moving on Burma now.

We also need to move beyond the tired, old "sanctions-vs.-engagement" debate. A bill filed by US Representative Tom Lantos would target the leaders of the junta with smart sanctions - if Congress passes the legislation, which is now stalled, and if the administration assigns a coordinator to implement it.

But the United States must also pursue a strategy that helps the people of Burma. For instance, reworking the US Office of Foreign Assets Control licensing process for humanitarian organizations might help, because the existing rules make it harder for such groups to engage in Burma. And the United States should be prepared to roll back sanctions if the junta meets irreversible benchmarks toward democratization that we agree on with other international actors like ASEAN, Japan, India, and even China.

The junta has mastered the art of fending off international pressure with empty gestures. It is exploiting divisions in the international community to block pressure for real change. For the sake of those who stand for peaceful democratic change in Burma, the United States must intensify its diplomacy and define the agenda for action before the regime outmaneuvers its critics once again.

Michael Green is an associate professor at Georgetown University and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Michael Schiffer is a program officer at the Stanley Foundation.

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