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Obama's Test in Burma

A policy of engagement that is all carrots and no sticks would be naïve--and self-defeating.

12:00 AM, Oct 10, 2009 • By BENEDICT ROGERS and JOSEPH LOCONTE
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The Obama administration recently announced the results of its long-awaited Burma policy review. On the face of it the outcome is sound. The United States will maintain existing sanctions on Burma's brutal regime, while attempting a dialogue with the generals. The combination of engagement plus pressure is precisely the package long advocated by Burma's democracy movement and its jailed leader, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Whether team Obama has the conviction and fortitude for successful negotiations is an open question.

For many years the policy debate about Burma has been polarized and oversimplified, constructed as a false choice between engagement or sanctions. Critics of sanctions regard themselves as pro-engagement, and accuse sanctions advocates of seeking to isolate the regime. But the goal of sanctions isn't isolation, the goal is to deprive the junta of legitimacy and to provide the country's democracy movement with greater leverage. Ever since 1988, "dialogue" has been Aung San Suu Kyi's mantra. The regime could not have a more reasonable opponent, and she recently has reiterated her call for dialogue in a letter to the dictator, Senior General Than Shwe. The purpose of sanctions and other forms of pressure, if properly targeted, is to get the generals to the negotiating table.

The broad thrust of the Obama administration's new Burma approach is therefore welcome. The debate should not be about whether to pursue engagement or pressure, but rather what type of engagement, with whom, and what form of pressure. There must be no repeats of last month's decision, for example, to waive the U.S. visa ban and allow Burma's foreign minister to sneak into Washington, D.C. He had a chat with Democratic Senator Jim Webb but, to our knowledge, had no conversation with administration officials. One of Southeast Asia's most brutal generals was allowed to inspect repair work at the Burmese embassy and go sightseeing. It was the worst of all worlds. Either the United States should maintain the visa ban on potential war criminals or invite them to join open, frank, direct, and accountable dialogue.

Indeed, only high-level engagement with Than Shwe would have any effect, as he alone makes the decisions. Friendly chats with middle-ranking officials will achieve nothing. Engagement must also include Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy movement, and the ethnic nationalities. Clear benchmarks are needed. All talks should be co-ordinated with other actors, particularly the United Nations and the European Union, in order to present a united front of international opposition.

Pressure must be maintained if engagement is to have any chance of success. Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a Senate hearing last week that "lifting or easing sanctions at the outset of a dialogue without meaningful progress on our concerns would be a mistake." Precisely. It was a clear rebuff to the regime's new best Ameican friend, Senator Webb, who wants to lift all sanctions immediately,

Campbell was ambivalent about the regime's planned elections in 2010, saying only that he would "assess the conditions." But the conditions are very clear. Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from participating, and has been given another eighteen months under house arrest to keep her out of the way. Last year's sham referendum on a new constitution tells us exactly how the regime intends to behave. Most importantly, the new constitution--upon which elections will be based--is a profoundly undemocratic document, intended only to preserve military rule. It does nothing to protect human rights or recognize Burma's ethnic groups. A Burmese activist calls it "a marriage proposal from a rapist." The Obama administration should urge the regime to amend it.

In the meantime, humanitarian assistance must be expanded, including cross-border aid to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in eastern Burma who are on the run from attacks by the Burma Army. Since 1996, over a million people have been forced to flee their homes, and more than 3,300 villages have been destroyed--a scale of suffering and destruction similar to that in the Darfur region of Sudan. Similarly, in Chin State along the India-Burma border, more than 100,000 people in over 200 villages are in dire need of food supplies, as a result of a chronic food shortage.

There are two measures the Obama administration should pursue while seeking a dialogue with the generals. First, a universal arms embargo, implemented by the U.N. Security Council, is long overdue. There is no moral justification for selling arms to a regime that has no external threats and uses those arms to suppress its own people. Second, the groundwork should be laid for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity. Burma's regime stands accused of using rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, and child soldiers on a widespread and systematic basis. It continues to commit gross human rights violations with impunity. It must be brought to account. Of course China and Russia will be obstacles, but it's getting harder to rationalize support for a regime with so much blood on its hands.

In pursuing engagement, the White House must be clear-eyed. This canny and deceitful regime is among the worst in the world. Last month a Burmese-born U.S citizen, activist Nyi Nyi Aung, was arrested in Rangoon. He joins another 2,200 political prisoners detained in Burma today. What is the Obama administration doing to secure his release? Even China, the regime's staunchest ally, is losing patience with the junta. Last week Beijing issued an extraordinarily strong statement, demanding that the regime "rapidly investigate" attacks by the military on ethnic Chinese in Burma, "punish law-breakers" and report back to Beijing.

The Obama administration prides itself on its willingness to use "smart diplomacy" to tackle international crises. It will face growing pressure to end the sanctions regime against Burma. But a policy of engagement that is all carrots and no sticks would be naïve--and self-defeating. Those fighting for democracy in Burma will need more than lofty words and good intentions.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist with the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He is co-author of a new biography of Burma's dictator, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant, to be published in 2010.

Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at the King's College in New York City who writes widely about international human rights, and is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.