The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.