TWO YEARS AGO the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) took in Burma as a member. This was a major diplomatic triumph for Burma, whose military rulers now call the country Myanmar, and helped ease the isolation it earned after it trashed an incipient democracy in 1990. ASEAN's logic was familiar: Engagement with the outside world would persuade Burma's dictators to relax their repressive rule.
The verdict on this test case of the engagement theory thus far is clear: The behavior of the thugs who run Burma has worsened, and so has life for most Burmese. The latest testimony comes from Amnesty International, which has issued three reports that detail the military regime's maltreatment of farmers and other civilians of minority ethnic groups in Burma's countryside. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes, and many have been killed. Amnesty's interviews with refugees also confirmed that thousands have been forced into dangerous labor, among them many children.
Last month the International Labor Organization (ILO), a part of the United Nations, condemned Burma in extraordinarily harsh terms and by an overwhelming margin. Burma was essentially expelled from the ILO. The organization found that more than 800,000 people have been pressed into labor, which it described as "nothing but a contemporary form of slavery."
The person most qualified to speak of the success or failure of the engagement strategy is Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the political party that swept the 1990 elections, the results of which the regime refuses to honor. She says repression of her party and arrests of its members have intensified this year. She of all people does not favor the isolation of the Burmese people, but she argues that any aid to Burma's generals only strengthens their corrupt rule to the detriment of the population. ASEAN, many of whose members are themselves struggling toward increased democracy, soon may have to confront the failure of its engagement strategy in Burma.