A Forgotten Crisis

Sunday, January 20, 2008

WAS IT only four months ago that the world was pledging to stand by the brave thousands who were marching peacefully for democracy in Burma? Was it so recently that the United Nations Security Council was proclaiming its readiness to promote reconciliation after those same thousands were swept off the streets and into prisons or unmarked graves?

As the U.N. effort sputtered to a complete stall last week, it was impossible not to wonder whether those brave pledges were anything but a summer dream. While the movement of Buddhist monks and hundreds of thousands of sympathizers held the world's attention, the odious regime in Burma, a Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people, promised to engage in dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader living under house arrest and in near total isolation. It promised, too, to permit U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to send his special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, any time he wanted. But no dialogue has taken place, and the regime won't give Mr. Gambari a visa until April, if then. And the Security Council's response to this extraordinary insult to its mandate and prestige? Last week, it mustered, not without controversy, a statement of "regret" at the "slow pace of progress."

Progress? Here's what's happened since Mr. Ban put his, and the United Nations', prestige on the line. More monks have been arrested. The death toll from the fall has yet to be made known. The regime raised the fee for satellite dish licenses from $5 per year to $800, or three times the average annual salary, so that its people -- already impoverished by economic mismanagement and corruption -- will be further cut off from the world. And meanwhile, Mr. Gambari flies from Asian capital to Asian capital, hoping that someone will put in a good word for his visa.

Bush administration officials are pushing China, India and the Europeans to pressure the Burmese, but without much luck. China didn't even want Mr. Gambari to brief the Security Council. Japan, ever attuned to its commercial interests in Burma, recently resumed aid. South Africa, which has emerged under President Thabo Mbeki as a leading opponent of human rights in other countries, has sought to stymie U.N. involvement. There are options beyond pleading: arms embargoes, stricter banking sanctions aimed at the junta members and their relatives, and more. Whether they come into play depends on whether the secretary general and and leaders of nations that claim to respect the United Nations object even a little to its humiliation by a band of Burmese bullies.

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