Burma’s Clenched Fist
Burma’s Clenched Fist
Is it time for the United States to reach out to the junta?
Friday, February 20, 2009; Page A22
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S inaugural address made the world’s tyrants a proposition. “We will extend a hand,” Mr. Obama said, “if you are willing to unclench your fist.” It now appears that Burma could be one of the first test cases for this approach. For decades, a small group of military officers has ruled the multiethnic Southeast Asian nation, crushing all political opposition and exploiting vast natural resources for personal enrichment. Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of a free election in 1990 — and still the embodiment of the Burmese people’s democratic dreams — languishes under government-imposed house arrest. There are more than 2,000 political prisoners. In response, the United States has maintained economic sanctions against Burma since the late 1990s; Congress toughened them last year, with the strong support of then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).
Yet Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has taken the occasion of a visit to Indonesia to announce a review of U.S. policy toward Burma. She pointedly did not rule out easing sanctions or other forms of diplomatic engagement. “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” she said, quickly adding that the policy of Burma’s Asian neighbors — “reaching out and trying to engage them” — has not shown results either. This is consistent with the recent recommendation of an influential nongovernmental organization: Citing improved Burmese government cooperation with international relief organizations in the wake of last year’s devastating cyclone, the International Crisis Group has called on the United States and other nations to step up development aid and resume imports from Burma.
President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush offered consistent condemnation of Burma’s junta. In the absence of global cooperation with U.S. sanctions, however, that admirably tough talk was bound to produce limited results. And the Bush administration was not willing to risk America’s broader relationship with China, the junta’s chief patron, by pressuring Beijing on Burma. So it makes sense, in principle, for the Obama administration to seek a policy with more practical benefits for the Burmese people.
We hope that the coming policy review is truly realistic. As Ms. Clinton noted, so far, no one has figured out a way to democratize Burma from the outside. The junta is planning a phony election for next year, based on a new constitution “ratified” by a dubious plebiscite during the cyclone crisis. And the Burmese opposition itself still supports sanctions — believing that the ruling clique will profit from increased trade and aid while also gaining political legitimacy at the expense of Aung San Suu Kyi. The United States and other countries have been supplying food and fuel to North Korea for over a decade, with no appreciable change in that regime’s horrific treatment of its people. Mr. Obama should conduct a policy review, by all means. But he must stick to the priorities implied in his inaugural address: If the United States is to extend a hand to Burma, that country’s tyrants must first relax their grip on power.
Will the Burmese Generals Unclench Their Fists?
by Zaw Nay Aung
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton admitted that US sanctions against Burmese junta were not effective and Washington was reviewing its policy on Burma. Nevertheless, it could not be interpreted that the US government would be seeking engagement with the junta as she said the engagement did not work either.
The new administration is looking for alternative approaches to influence the junta. Clinton also visited the regional body, ASEAN’s headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia on Wednesday during her tour in Southeast Asia, and some observers believe that Obama’s Administration would try to develop closer ties with ASEAN on resolving Burma’s crisis. President Obama claimed that America would extend a hand to the dictators if they would change their stance. The new administration seems to look for alternative approaches dealing with authoritarian regimes like the Burmese junta.
If the Generals wish to form a better relationship with the Obama administration, they need to release their grips on power and only then they can unclench their fists. Obviously, they can not shake hands with Washington while iron-gripping the power and silencing the dissidents. The US government should also be aware that ASEAN has been undermining the US and other Western measures against the junta over the years. ASEAN and other regional countries have been “black knights,” saving Burma’s military regime from Western punitive measures. A multilateral approach is needed and crucially the cooperation from the regional countries would lead to significant progress in shaping Burma’s democratic future.
Although Clinton argued that sanctions against the junta did not make a difference, how their measures were undermined by the regional countries must be noted as the junta entrenched its power with economic and political support from the regional counterparts. Although the US should try different approaches, Washington needs a better review of current measures to redefine effective policy enhancements.
Since the military took over power in 1988, the US imposed a series of measures against the junta from visa bans, trade sanctions and other features of economic coercion. However, the US sanctions were filled with crucial loopholes–such as the US firm Chevron is still making money out of Burma. This scenario is also the same for Europe–French oil giant Total has been dealing with the regime no matter that suffering Burmese people cried out for Total to stop fuelling the oppression.
It is time for a change of US policy towards the Burmese junta through strengthening the current measures, after fixing the loopholes and implementing multilateral actions. While the regional selfish money-makers are happy with bloody money from a hellish situation in this Southeast Asian country, the West should not let their hands be stained with blood after leaving their businesses in Burma where Generals rely on the vital economic sources such as oil and gas extraction.
If the Obama administration wants to see the generals unclench their fists, the crucial and vital sources energising the regime must be completely cut off. Then, the hard-line Generals would release their grips on power, permitting dissidents to cry out for freedom and democracy.