Burma Policy Needs Sticks As Well As Carrots

Monday, September 28, 2009

HAVING SPENT much of a year reviewing U.S. policy toward Burma, the Obama administration soon will unveil a reasonable new strategy, as far as it goes. It doesn't yet go far enough, however.

The review was sparked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's apt observation that U.S. policy hasn't been very successful. Burma (also known as Myanmar), a Southeast Asian nation, remains under the thumb of one of the world's most odious regimes. Its population of 50 million, once relatively prosperous, languishes in dire poverty while its rulers plunder the country's natural resources and get rich. Peaceful efforts by students, Buddhist monks and others to win a measure of freedom are met with brutal repression; the regime holds more than 2,000 political prisoners. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly the last time Burma held genuine elections, in 1990, remains under house arrest.

U.S. policy has consisted of applying economic sanctions and half-heartedly trying to persuade other nations to do the same; shunning diplomatic contact with the government; vigorously supporting, in rhetoric, Burma's democrats; and, particularly since last year's devastating Cyclone Nargis, providing modest amounts of humanitarian aid. According to a senior administration official, the new policy will continue the sanctions. It will continue, and perhaps deepen, the humanitarian aid, making sure that none flows to the government or government-front organizations. And it will allow diplomatic engagement.

If engagement proceeds, U.S. officials will seek to put two topics on the agenda. One is democracy, including the need to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, allow her party to operate freely, hold elections in which the opposition participates and stop attacking ethnic minorities. The second is international security, and particularly U.S. concerns about Burma's burgeoning relationship with North Korea.

Those are the right topics, as long as U.S. officials discuss them with Burma's democrats as well as its dictators. We hope that discussions lead to tangible progress, in which case the United States might begin to consider easing sanctions. But what if they lead to no change in the regime's behavior or in its plan to stage phony elections in 2010 that only entrench military rule? U.S. officials acknowledge that the latter is likely, but so far there is no Plan B, no thought of sticks to hold alongside the carrots of eased sanctions. Stricter, more effective, more targeted sanctions; measures that take aim at the regime's rich earnings from natural gas sales; a U.N. investigation of the regime's crimes against humanity, which have been amply documented: These, too, should be on the table.

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