Leverage with Burma

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

IN ONE SENSE, the farcical election taking shape in Burma, a Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people, offers good news. Burma's generals would not go to such lengths to create the appearance of democracy unless they cared about global opinion. That suggests that outside nations with an interest in promoting peace and democracy in Burma have more leverage than is commonly believed. On the other hand, this is good news only if those nations are willing to use that leverage in a constructive way. On that front, there's a long way to go.

Last week, Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD) formally decided not to take part in elections planned for some time this year. The decision had been almost inevitable since the ruling generals promulgated an election law that said parties could register only if they expel any members who are political prisoners. Many of the nation's most eminent citizens, including a sizable number of NLD leaders, are among Burma's 2,000-plus political prisoners. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who heads the party, is under house arrest. "Without them, our party would be nothing," party leader U Win Tin, himself recently released from prison, wrote in the Post on Tuesday. "They are in prison because of their belief in democracy and the rule of law. Their immediate release and participation in Burma's political process are necessary for a credible democratic process."

The generals can be expected to go ahead with their election anyhow. After all, a cataclysmic cyclone that left much of their population underwater in 2008 didn't stop them from holding a staged referendum on the constitution. The charter itself guarantees enough legislative seats to the military to reassure the junta that its power won't be wrested away by something as trifling as the popular will. And, just to make sure, the junta wrote the rules so that the NLD -- which overwhelmingly won the last real election, in 1990, but was never permitted to govern -- can't take part.

So why go through the charade at all? It must be that the generals would like to shed their reputation as one of the more repressive regimes in the world. They would like to be free of the financial and trade sanctions that the United States and other nations have imposed. They would like to be treated with respect.

Other nations should make clear that Burma would indeed be welcomed back -- but only if it frees all political prisoners and ceases its war crimes against national minorities. Some democratic nations (Indonesia, Australia, the Czech Republic and the United States, to name a few) have been stalwart in advocating democratic reform. Others, such as India and quasi-democratic Singapore, have not. Together, these nations could exert real influence. They could tighten financial sanctions to really pinch top leaders and the entities they control; they could push the machinery of the United Nations to investigate the regime's crimes, such as forced labor and mass rape. Now would be a good moment, in other words, to unite and use the leverage that is lying unused on the table.


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