US reverses policy towards Burmese junta

US reverses policy towards Burmese junta

The Opposition supports the new United States initiative, but remains sceptical

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the United States would pursue engagement but maintain the economic sanctions that have been put in place to punish the government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for its human rights abuses and restrictions on political freedom.

“Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion,” she said. “So, going forward we will be employing both of these tools, pursuing our same goals. To help achieve democratic reform we will be engaging directly with Burmese authorities.” The shift in policy was the result of a review that was first announced by Mrs Clinton in February when she said neither the sanctions imposed by Western countries nor the “constructive engagement” of Myanmar’s Asian neighbours had succeeded in affecting the government’s behaviour.

It represented the most significant modification of administration policy towards Myanmar in decades. But analysts said it was likely to face opposition in Congress, where many members strongly support an unflinchingly antagonistic approach to the junta.

Carrot and stick

Analysts and activists said the new policy entailed a difficult balancing act between carrot and stick, and they said they did not expect it to produce significant effects in the near term.

Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi has been a long-time advocate of sanctions but has also tried to engage the ruling generals in a dialogue and has said any future government would have to include the military. “She said she accepts direct engagement but it must be on both sides,” said her lawyer, U Nyan Win, after visiting her Thursday. By both sides, he said she meant both the government and the opposition.

Speaking at the United Nations, Mrs Clinton did not provide specifics and some analysts voiced concern that the new policy would be only cosmetic, while others said it could undermine the pressure that the West has brought to bear on the ruling generals.

“I think we have to keep our short-term expectations fairly low,” said Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian who is the author of “The River of Lost Footsteps.”“I don’t think talking to the generals will influence much their plans for next year’s elections or will lead anytime soon to dialogue between them and Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “But we have to look at the long-term picture, and the more engagement there is from the outside world, especially from the United States, the more quickly we’re going to see the country move in the right direction.”

Debbie Stothard, coordinator of Altsean-Burma, a regional human rights group, said many Burmese activists were concerned that the junta could take the new policy as a tacit endorsement of its current behaviour, giving it “a honeymoon in terms of moving forward with reform.”

“It’s a very tough balancing act if you want to moderate between a big carrot and a big stick,” she said. “It requires a lot of mindfulness and a lot of finesse, and, speaking to the generals, a clear sense of principle.”

She pointed to the failed policy of engagement by Myanmar’s neighbours in Southeast Asia who, in their desire to maintain a working relationship, had allowed the junta to “deliver token gestures instead of genuine and irreversible reform.” Over the years, the junta has carried out a policy of promises and gestures toward the outside world while maintaining a strong grip over its own people, crushing pro-democracy demonstrations by force.

The generals have not been moved by ever-tighter economic restrictions and diplomatic pressure, which have been undermined by continuing trade from Myanmar’s neighbours and have pushed the country into a closer embrace with its biggest trade partner, China.
The generals clung to power in 1990 after losing a parliamentary election to the National League for Democracy and since then have jailed thousands of political opponents, including the monks and their supporters who demonstrated in the streets two years ago. Washington imposed additional sanctions at that time, to little evident effect.

Most recently, the regime convicted Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi of violating the terms of her house arrest after an American intruder spent two days at her villa.

She was sentenced to house arrest for the next 18 months, a period that will ensure that she is out of the public eye during a parliamentary election scheduled for early next year.Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar who is an emeritus professor at Rutgers University, has grown skeptical over the years as he has watched the world try one futile policy after another to influence the junta.

“How are you going to engage and whom are you going to engage and, if they can say it, what subject are they going to take up first?” he said.

He added: “We are not going to go to war with them. And if we are not going to war with them, we haven’t figured out a peaceful means, not only to get them to listen to us but to get them to respond in a positive way.”