Is It Time for the U.S. to Reach Out to Burma's Junta?

Friday, February 20, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S inaugural address made the world's tyrants a proposition. "We will extend a hand," Mr. Obama said, "if you are willing to unclench your fist." It now appears that Burma could be one of the first test cases for this approach. For decades, a small group of military officers has ruled the multiethnic Southeast Asian nation, crushing all political opposition and exploiting vast natural resources for personal enrichment. Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of a free election in 1990 -- and still the embodiment of the Burmese people's democratic dreams -- languishes under government-imposed house arrest. There are more than 2,000 political prisoners. In response, the United States has maintained economic sanctions against Burma since the late 1990s; Congress toughened them last year, with the strong support of then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

Yet Mr. Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has taken the occasion of a visit to Indonesia to announce a review of U.S. policy toward Burma. She pointedly did not rule out easing sanctions or other forms of diplomatic engagement. "Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta," she said, quickly adding that the policy of Burma's Asian neighbors -- "reaching out and trying to engage them" -- has not shown results either. This is consistent with the recent recommendation of an influential nongovernmental organization: Citing improved Burmese government cooperation with international relief organizations in the wake of last year's devastating cyclone, the International Crisis Group has called on the United States and other nations to step up development aid and resume imports from Burma.

President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush offered consistent condemnation of Burma's junta. In the absence of global cooperation with U.S. sanctions, however, that admirably tough talk was bound to produce limited results. And the Bush administration was not willing to risk America's broader relationship with China, the junta's chief patron, by pressuring Beijing on Burma. So it makes sense, in principle, for the Obama administration to seek a policy with more practical benefits for the Burmese people.

We hope that the coming policy review is truly realistic. As Ms. Clinton noted, so far, no one has figured out a way to democratize Burma from the outside. The junta is planning a phony election for next year, based on a new constitution "ratified" by a dubious plebiscite during the cyclone crisis. And the Burmese opposition itself still supports sanctions -- believing that the ruling clique will profit from increased trade and aid while also gaining political legitimacy at the expense of Aung San Suu Kyi. The United States and other countries have been supplying food and fuel to North Korea for over a decade, with no appreciable change in that regime's horrific treatment of its people. Mr. Obama should conduct a policy review, by all means. But he must stick to the priorities implied in his inaugural address: If the United States is to extend a hand to Burma, that country's tyrants must first relax their grip on power.

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