Time to Go ‘Down in Flames’ for Burma
The Journal of American Enterprise Institute
Time to Go ‘Down in Flames’ for Burma
By Jean Geran Saturday, September 5, 2009
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said that after the Rwanda genocide she swore ‘that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.’ She faces such a crisis again.
After six months, the Obama administration’s review of U.S. policy toward Burma still does not appear to have focused on the one measure with the best chance of inducing the regime to change: a global arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council. The case for Security Council action on Burma long has been compelling, but now is even stronger.
General Than Shwe and the military junta ruling Burma continue to wage a war against their own people. Recently, thousands of Burmese from the Kokang ethnic group living near Burma’s northeastern border have fled to China to escape a new military assault by the Burma army. Not only is the regime a threat to its own people, but there are growing signs that it undermines international security and stability as well. For example, the growing military relationship between Burma and North Korea likely includes North Korean support for a nascent nuclear program in Burma. Even China,
long one of the junta’s most quietly consistent supporters, this week became sufficiently frustrated with the junta’s reckless rule to issue a rebuke to Burma’s generals for provoking refugee flows across the border into China’s Yunnan Province.
As the United States assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council this month, it should renew a diplomatic effort at the council, coordinated with the United Kingdom and other allies, to pass a long-overdue arms embargo of Burma. This at least would deny the ruling junta its primary tools of oppression and help stop the atrocities it commits against its own people. It will not be easy. But such a push would be an effective, multilateral, and noble centerpiece for the Obama administration’s policy toward Burma because both the justification for Security Council action and its chances for success have significantly increased.
If the collective suffering and human misery were to be added up, the crisis in Burma’s ethnic regions would dwarf many other mass atrocities, perhaps even Darfur.
Unfortunately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department seem to have allowed themselves once again to be distracted by the all-too-familiar delaying tactics of the Burmese generals and by circular policy debates about sanctions, levels of engagement, and humanitarian aid. Western governments often fall into this paralyzing internal argument, and the only winners are Than Shwe and his henchmen. The short-lived outcry over Aung San Suu Kyi’s ridiculous trial and re-sentencing has died down while the debate over economic sanctions and “diplomatic engagement” has been renewed by Senator Jim Webb’s recent misguided trip to Burma. While his humanitarian mission succeeded in freeing the imprisoned American John Yettaw, Webb’s trip otherwise only served to embolden the generals and to undermine Aung San Suu Kyi and the other 2,000-plus political prisoners in Burma.
Meanwhile, the situation for Burma’s people gets worse, not better. The massive human rights abuses by the Burmese military against civilians, often women and children, in ethnic minority regions of the country continue unabated and yet seem to barely register in the international media. These abuses are so severe, pervasive, and well-documented in official UN reports and resolutions that a Harvard Law School assessment commissioned by five prominent jurists from around the world has called for the Security Council to establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma. If the collective suffering and human misery were to be added up—all the victims, the destruction, the rape, the lost limbs, the child soldiers, the refugees, and those displaced over the past six decades—the crisis in Burma’s ethnic regions would dwarf many other mass atrocities, perhaps even Darfur. Yet six decades of civil war and accompanying war crimes are still neglected by this post-Rwanda, purportedly “never again” generation.
The United States should renew a diplomatic effort at the UN Security Council, coordinated with the United Kingdom and other allies, to pass a long-overdue arms embargo of Burma.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice would lead any push on Burma at the Security Council and knows all too well the costs of not doing enough. In the Clinton administration, Rice served on the National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide. In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article on the genocide, author Samantha Power (who, incidentally, is now the lead staff member on UN Affairs at the National Security Council) quotes Rice as saying, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” Unfortunately, the State Department’s insipid statement this week on the current military assault in Burma notes only that State is “monitoring developments carefully” and is “deeply concerned.” During the several years I worked on Burma human rights policy at the State Department, it was well known internally (almost as gallows humor) that anytime an official statement included phrases such as “monitoring developments carefully” and “deeply concerned,” the real meaning was “we are doing little to nothing.” But doing nothing should not be an option.
Of course, China remains a challenge at the Security Council, and has used its veto to block action on Burma in the past. China also remains the largest arms supplier to the Burmese regime. But Beijing’s calculations seem to be changing now that its national interests are implicated directly by thousands of refugees crossing its border. Even if the current refugee crisis abates, conflict conditions make future displacements likely. The fighting between the Burmese military and the Kokang and Wa armies is just the latest, most visible manifestation of growing unrest in ethnic regions. The regime’s planned “elections” in 2010 are being forced down the throats of all the ethnic minority groups with which the regime has maintained ceasefire agreements. Ethnic leaders from these groups who attended the tightly controlled constitution-drafting process in recent years to prepare for these supposed elections experienced the sham firsthand. Rumblings are also spreading over the Burmese military’s push to transform ceasefire groups into a border-guard force under its direct command. Up until now, most ceasefire agreements with ethnic armies allowed some level of command and control by ethnic leaders themselves. The border guard would end that, and now more than just the Kokang are threatening to take up arms again. This is very bad news for China. If China realizes that Aung San Suu Kyi is not only the best hope for democracy in Burma, but also for the border stability it prizes so highly, then Security Council action should become more palatable. Without China’s opposition, Russia would also drop its veto threat.
Senator Webb’s trip emboldened the generals and undermined Aung San Suu Kyi and the other 2,000-plus political prisoners in Burma.
At the 2005 UN World Summit, world leaders first articulated the “responsibility to protect” as official UN doctrine. The power to intervene has always existed within the Security Council’s mandate, but this new language stipulated the conditions to prompt such intervention. The situation in Burma more than meets those conditions. With increasing public support, including across Asia, and with a coordinated diplomatic effort led by the United States to bring around China and Russia, a global arms embargo against the junta is possible. And for the people of Burma, it is essential.
Jean Geran is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute. She served as the director for democracy and human rights on the National Security Council and as an abuse prevention officer on the U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team in southern Iraq.
FURTHER READING: Geran previously wrote “No Hugs for the Thugs in Burma” on why Secretary of State Clinton should not go wobbly on the junta.