U.S. Sees Burma as 'Test Case' in Southeast Asia

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Bush administration has mounted a diplomatic offensive against the military government of Burma, suggesting to nations in the region that it is a "test case" for whether they hold the same values and standards as the United States.

The effort was jump-started in October after President Bush spent 50 minutes meeting in the Oval Office with a persuasive 24-year refugee named Charm Tong. Bush followed up by pressing leaders at an Asian economic summit in November, winning a written pledge from the president of the Philippines that she would back an effort by the United States to bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council.

Other officials, such as Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, also worked the phones to win the nine votes needed to call a meeting of the 15-member council. The effort resulted in the first-ever discussion of the situation in Burma by the council earlier this month.

That meeting was held in private -- a move required to preserve a consensus -- but U.S. officials said they will push for the Security Council to take up a resolution on Burma, perhaps by next month.

Some nations on the council have questioned whether Burma presents an international security problem. U.S. officials have responded by offering a raft of reasons that the Burmese government threatens the stability of the region, including huge refugee flows, a record of forced labor and government-sponsored drug trafficking. A number of aid groups have pulled out of the country in the past year because the government has imposed increasingly tough restrictions.

Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, privately told the Security Council that Burma is an international concern, where the people "have many of their essential rights and calls for democratic reform denied" and there is no evidence the government is interested in investigating abuses, according to a copy of his remarks. He said villages have been relocated, with at least 240 destroyed; forced labor is widespread; and there is a growing "humanitarian emergency" of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

The United States, by itself, has little leverage over Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. The country has faced a ban on exports to the United States since 2003 after authorities placed under house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was prevented by the Burmese military from taking office after her party won a landslide electoral victory in 1990. She has been in detention for 10 of the past 16 years, and her most recent confinement began after a bloody campaign by government-sponsored gangs against her and her supporters in May 2003.

But until recently, the administration's diplomatic efforts had little success in Asia. Burma's neighbors -- and their umbrella group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- were content to continue doing business with the repressive government, in part because many feared that a break in relations would give China greater leverage in the resource-rich country.

India, Burma's neighbor to the west, and Thailand, on Burma's eastern border, have also been eager to look the other way while they pursue business deals, U.S. officials said. Japan, which maintained close links because it ended British colonial rule during World War II, also refused to pressure the regime.

The approaches taken by ASEAN, India and Japan "were not producing results and enabling worse behavior by the regime," said a senior administration official, who like other U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to more freely discuss the administration's strategy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Burma one of six "outposts of tyranny" in her confirmation hearings. But although the administration routinely denounced the government, its diplomatic efforts were low-key.

That changed after Bush met on Oct. 31 with Charm Tong, one of several dissidents he has brought to the White House in recent months, including a North Korean defector, a Liberian refugee and the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet.

Charm Tong was born in Shan state, home of Burma's largest ethnic minority, and was smuggled out of the country by her parents at age 6. She co-wrote a report titled "License to Rape," which caught the attention of the State Department three years ago with its accounts of attacks against hundreds of Shan women and girls. The State Department sent an investigator to verify the findings, which the Burmese government adamantly disputed.

During the meeting, Charm Tong stressed to the president that Burma has 50 million people, making it the second-largest country in Southeast Asia, as a way to emphasize the large number of people who would be positively affected by a determined U.S. push.

U.S. officials say such sessions energize Bush and give him a human face to a policy problem. "When the president has a personal affinity with someone, that dictates policy," one senior official said. "That's the case here."

As a result, the president headed to the Asian economic summit scheduled a couple of weeks later determined to make progress on the issue. Coincidentally, the Burmese government announced on Nov. 7 that it had moved its capital about 200 miles north to a town without running water, adding to the disquiet in the region.

Part of Bush's message was that "Burma is very important; it is a test case for our whole agenda in the region," the official said. For instance, the administration is trying to build a relationship with India based on common values, and the Indians have been told their approach to Burma is a way to prove their seriousness. The Chinese were told that certain standards of behavior will be key to the U.S.-Sino relationship, and one test will be how China deals with governments with unsavory reputations.

Japan, one of the closest allies of the United States, was especially reluctant to challenge Burma, but Tokyo has abruptly shifted position, U.S. and Japanese diplomats said. The key, U.S. officials said, is that Bush gave a speech in Kyoto during his trip in which he extolled their common love of democracy -- and the Japanese were bluntly told they would look silly if they continue to prop up Burma.

The one key ally that has proven a disappointment is Thailand, U.S. officials said. The family of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire who took office in 2001, is reported to have business interests in Burma, and the Thai government believes stability is essential to keep the lid on drug smuggling and human trafficking, officials said.


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