Burma's Bullies

Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE CRUELEST dictatorships, like the most ruthless criminal gangs, always have understood that the most effective way to deter opposition is to go after the innocent loved ones of potential enemies. Thus it was not enough for Gen. Than Shwe and his junta in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma (also known as Myanmar) to sentence the Buddhist monk U Gambira to prison for 68 years last fall. It was learned last week that his brother, his brother-in-law and four cousins have been sentenced to five years in Burma's gloomy prisons. We hope that this small piece of data is fed into the review of U.S. policy on Burma that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has promised.

U Gambira, 28 at the time, was a leader of the nonviolent protests that broke out in Burma in September 2007. Thousands of Burmese followed him and other monks in peaceful protest against one of the world's most brutal dictatorships, despite understanding the possible consequences. U Gambira himself, in an op-ed published in The Post on Nov. 4, 2007 -- the day, as it happened, of his arrest after weeks on the run -- said that he understood the risks he was taking. "It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey," he wrote. "Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow." We can only guess whether he understood that even his uninvolved relatives would be victimized.

The United States has been frustrated in its efforts to promote democratization in Burma, a nation of about 50 million, so Ms. Clinton's policy review is well timed. No doubt her team will talk to academics and humanitarian aid workers who favor more engagement with the regime and the country. (Those who tout Burma's recent cooperation with relief agencies might, however, want to take note of another prison sentence handed down last week: 17 years to Min Thein Tun, who was arrested last July for distributing relief supplies to the victims of Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy delta.) They should talk with officials in neighboring countries, who have been pursuing a policy of engagement for years; in addition to its impact on the wealth of the regime and its trading partners in countries such as Thailand and Singapore, U.S. officials might ask, what effect has this policy had?

It may be that the U.S. review can lead to smarter and more targeted sanctions, with better coordination among allies and neighbors. Certainly, we hope that Ms. Clinton will make clear to Burma's government that the United States could never ease sanctions without first conducting full and free consultations with Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's rightful ruler. Aung San Suu Kyi's party overwhelmingly won an election in 1990, but the junta ignored the results and has kept her isolated and under house arrest for most of the time since. Her release, and that of thousands of other political prisoners -- and their families -- remains essential.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company