U.S. Seeks New Tack on Burma

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 12, 2009

BANGKOK -- When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced recently that the United States was reviewing its policy of sanctions against Burma's government, it marked the final recognition of a global failure to modify the behavior of one of the world's most repressive regimes.

"Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta," Clinton said during a visit to Asia in February. "Reaching out and trying to engage them hasn't worked, either."

Her comments have triggered an intense debate about what approach toward Burma, also known as Myanmar, might prove more effective.

For the past 12 years, the United States has pursued a policy of increasingly tight sanctions -- blocking imports, investment and all other financial contacts and ultimately imposing sanctions that target individual junta members. Meanwhile, Burma's Asian neighbors tried the opposite approach, attempting to bend the junta to their will with a charm offensive known as constructive engagement, epitomized by the 1997 invitation to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Neither path produced results.

Many diplomats and regional analysts say the most likely solution is a combination of carrot and stick: expanding aid and lifting some of the broad sanctions that have helped slow Burma's economic development to a crawl, while at the same time crafting sanctions that more effectively hit the bank accounts and travel plans of those who run and benefit from the regime.

"We are examining what we would call 'intelligent engagement,' " a senior Western diplomat said recently.

The opposition National League for Democracy, which won the 1990 elections but was never allowed to take power, was once among the most vocal advocates of sanctions, but the party's leader, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest and unable to speak publicly, and many observers have said that recent ambiguous statements by the group suggest their position might be softening.

Sean Turnell, an Australian Burma expert, points out that there are significant problems with lifting even broad sanctions. In the absence of a gesture such as releasing the more than 2,100 political prisoners the junta is holding, such a move could be seen as rewarding intransigence and brutality, he said.

Thant Myint-U, author of a book about Burma's history titled "The River of Lost Footsteps" and the grandson of former U.N. secretary general U Thant, says the current sanctions on the regime are hurting ordinary Burmese more than generals.

"Any moral hazard of seeming to reward the generals is far outweighed by the moral hazard of not doing more to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty and finding a new and more dynamic way of promoting development and democracy in Burma," he said.

"Sanctions aren't a stick, and engagement is not a carrot -- it's almost the other way around," Thant added. "We need to find ways of increasing the right kind of aid, trade and investment, opening up the country, strengthening the middle class and laying the foundations for a meaningful democratic transition."


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