Monday, May 18, 2009

No Hugs for the Thugs in Burma

Secretary of State Clinton should not go wobbly on the junta.

In the midst of her recent Asia trip, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that the United States is reviewing its policy toward Burma. As the Obama administration assesses its options, it would be wise to remember it is dealing with one of the world’s most brutal tyrannies, which has held power for decades through terror and totalitarian control. Fear and force are the two things that the ruling junta most understands—and are the only two factors that have ever succeeded in altering its behavior over the years. Any policy review must be mindful of that history.

In recent months, the Burmese generals stepped up their imprisonment of dissidents. The number of political prisoners has swelled to over 2,000. Horrific attacks and displacement of civilians in ethnic minority regions continue unabated. The legitimate leaders of the Burmese people such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing, along with representatives of the tormented ethnic minority groups such as the Karen and Shan, continue to seek more support from the international community and more pressure on the regime. Now is not the time to abandon them.

It is especially disturbing to think that a review of U.S. policy may cede important ground gained under the Bush administration. In addition to President Bush’s forceful advocacy on the issue, First Lady Laura Bush took a personal interest in Burma’s plight and, among other initiatives, helped bring the issue of the tyrannical Burmese government for the first time before the U.N. Security Council. Any policy change that goes the other direction and eases pressure would be disastrous for the Burmese people.

The most important thing that the West can do is to apply more and smarter pressure on the generals to force them to the negotiating table—not with us, but with the legitimate leaders of their own people. We can also press Burma’s neighbors—specifically India, Thailand, and China—to end their support for the regime.

Frustration over the lack of progress has revived longstanding debates over sanctions and humanitarian aid. On the surface the arguments for easing sanctions and allowing more aid strike sympathetic chords with those unfamiliar with the peculiar and psychotic nature of Than Shwe and the rest of the junta. It is easy to think that aid will ease the suffering of the people. But only the most carefully channelled assistance can avoid cooptation by the regime, and even these channels are extremely rare and limited to flows across the border from Thailand and small subtle efforts that work under the radar of the regime. Large-scale aid flowing through Rangoon, especially through larger U.N. agencies, inevitably is controlled by the regime or its cronies and strengthens their grip on power.

The generals have repeatedly shown their contempt for the welfare of their own people. This contempt was most tragically seen in their appalling response to Cyclone Nargis. The disaster led to over a hundred thousand deaths, many unnecessary, due to restrictions or even denial of aid. One need only remember the ships, planes, and tarmacs full of supplies that were not distributed because the regime denied access to the victims; or the plight of courageous Burmese citizens like 23-year-old student Kay Thi Aung, who was imprisoned in September 2008 for her efforts to provide aid to cyclone victims, and who recently suffered a miscarriage due to the deplorable jail conditions; and comedian Zarganar, sentenced to 59 years imprisonment for criticizing the regime’s failures. In most other countries the actions of these two would not be considered political activity, but to the lawless Burmese regime all things—even humanitarian gestures—are “political.”

The current sanctions have not yet brought freedom, but that is no reason to abandon them. They must be intensified and coordinated multilaterally. The people of this fertile, resource rich, and once well-educated country are suffering under the economic malevolence and ignorance of their oppressors, not the effects of economic sanctions. A policy review of sanctions would be helpful only if it leads to better targeting and expanded coordination with allies in the region and beyond. But any backtracking or easing of pressure would be a huge mistake and would play right into the hands of the generals.

Likewise, a policy review that leads to a renewed diplomatic push in Washington and at the United Nations might have a chance of overcoming the Russian and Chinese veto threat. A strong U.N. Security Council resolution, especially one with sharp multilateral teeth such as an arms embargo or targeted global sanctions, would quickly get the attention of the generals. The case for Security Council action is clear. Ongoing military offensives against civilians that include rape as a weapon of war, as well as refugee displacement, disease spreading across borders, and trafficking in drugs and people, make the situation in Burma as much a security issue as a human rights or humanitarian one.

Concern for Burma has long attracted strong bipartisan interest and support in the United States, and Secretary Clinton herself has previously made a priority of supporting female leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi. If this review goes forward and new tactics are considered, U.S. policymakers should remember the nature and history of this brutal regime and pay heed to the vital voices of the Burmese democracy movement over those tired voices of Western academics, the United Nations, or aid agencies. We in the West have failed the people of Burma time and again with our weak statements and our short memories, and yet they persevere with an honor and steadfastness that should put us all to shame. They are the ones who know what is best for their country. We must continue to stand beside them against tyranny and terror until freedom and prosperity are once again theirs.

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.

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