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Burma shunned U.S. diplomacy with new election law. Now what?

Friday, March 12, 2010; A18

PRESIDENT OBAMA took office hoping that constructive diplomacy could yield progress on some of the thorniest foreign-policy challenges facing the United States. Among these was Burma, a Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people that has been misruled into poverty, decline and perpetual warfare by a benighted military dictatorship. Mr. Obama did not abandon economic sanctions against the regime, but he did hold out the prospect of warmer relations if Burma's regime would show some sign of easing up on its people.

This week the regime delivered its answer: Get lost. The government promulgated rules that make clear that an election planned for this year will be worse than meaningless. That had always been the fear, given laws that guaranteed the military a decisive role in parliament, no matter who won the election. But the new rules make it official: Burma's leading democratic party and its leader, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be permitted to take part.

Burma (called Myanmar by its rulers) is a unique case, because the opposition has legitimacy that cannot be denied. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country's independence hero, led the National League for Democracy to a landslide victory the only time reasonably fair elections have been permitted, in 1990, even though she was under house arrest. No transition to civilian rule is plausible unless she and other legitimate stakeholders are allowed to play a role.

A State Department spokesman said that the new law "makes a mockery of the democratic process and ensures that the upcoming elections will be devoid of credibility." The question now is how the administration will respond. It needs to pursue financial sanctions that target Burma's ruling generals and their corruptly amassed wealth. It needs to rally the European Union and Burma's enablers, such as Singapore, to take similar actions. And it needs to take more seriously the security challenge posed by the regime's intensifying wars against minority nationalities and the resulting refugee crises.

A senior U.N. official, in a draft report that became public this week, said that Burma is guilty of "a pattern of gross and systematic violation of human rights" that has continued for years, that reflects state policy and that may constitute "crimes against humanity, or war crimes." The official, Tomás Ojea Quintana, special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, will recommend the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes, which include ethnic cleansing and the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war.

Mr. Obama was right to offer, cautiously, an open hand. It has been spat upon. Now is the time for something new.

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