Thursday, April 2, 2009

Change is needed from the outside

Francis Wade

(DVB)–Last week was a confusing week for the ruling regime in Burma, normally comfortable behind the thick veil woven by its hermit tendencies.

On three separate occasions in as many days the country was catapulted onto the world’s stage, dragging behind it a nearly half-century old record of human rights abuses that would put most tyrannical rulers alive today to shame. The need for the spotlight to be redirected towards Burma couldn’t come sooner, as doubts in the international community about the failure of current policy towards the junta finally start to seep out, and new tactics urgently need addressing.

First came the UN ruling on Tuesday that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ongoing detention was illegal under the regime’s own stated laws. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years, since her National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the 1990 general elections. The ruling was unprecedented, and particularly potent given how seldom the UN accuses a state of violating its own law.

Then came a rare visit from a senior US government official the following day, one of only a handful of top-level figures that have visited Burma since the US slapped far-reaching sanctions on the regime following the 1990 elections. The exact intentions, and outcome, of the meeting have been vague; typically, state-run media in Burma spoke of “cordial discussions of mutual interests and promotion of bilateral relations” between the two countries.

Regardless, news outlets around the world leapt to their feet at the prospect of policy change, perhaps spurred on by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment in February that the US needed to review its stance on Burma in light of the failure of sanctions. While the White House has so far publicly denied that the talks were a sign of a softer approach, Aye Tha Aung, of Burmese parliamentary group the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, who met with the US official on Thursday, said the two talked of “new types of sanctions that will only cause effect directly on the government and business companies tied to them.”

That would be the hope. Former US deputy secretary of state, Matthew Daley, boasted in 2003 that the package of sanctions imposed in July that year had disrupted much of Burma’s industry to the point where the junta were unable to salvage it. Some 40,000 people from the garment industry, mostly women, lost their jobs, he continued. Internationals NGO’s later reported that many of them ended up in the sex industry.

Similarly, two weeks ago reports surfaced of women crossing from northern Burma into China to work as prostitutes following the collapse of the jade industry. Just days prior to this, the BBC reported that many workers in Burma’s jade industry blamed the collapse of the industry on the ban imposed on imports of Burmese gems to the US, further fuelling allegations that sanctions have been misdirected.

The Burmese government must have raised another eyebrow on Wednesday after the European Union’s special envoy to Burma, Piero Fassino, announced it would consider easing sanctions when they come up for renewal in April “if there are some positive steps in the direction of our goal.”

The ruling State Peace and Development Council have penciled in March 2010 for Burma’s first general election in 20 years, although the rewritten 2008 constitution guarantees entrenchment of military rule. It is a revision of this, and the lifting of crippling restrictions on opposition groups, that would constitute a “positive step” in the EU’s mind, although there has been no hint that the constitution will receive anything but a nudge in the right direction from its authors.

Unsurprisingly, speculations are rife as to what last week’s events mean for Burma. Tuesday’s UN ruling opened the world’s eyes to the impunity under which one of the world’s most isolated regimes freely operates. Alongside arbitrary imprisonments (currently 2,128 political prisoners – activists, journalists and lawyers - languish in Burma’s jails, some with sentences of 65 years), the regime is known to recruit more child soldiers than any government in the world. Amnesty International has condemned the military’s use of rape as a means of intimidation, while widespread use of forced labour in infrastructural ‘development’ projects, previously funded by overseas aid, has been well documented.

In this context, the succession of sanctions packages placed on the country over the past two decades, aimed at financially suffocating the regime, were initially justified. Yet the sudden, and unannounced, visit by a US official last Wednesday, along with the EU’s tentative statement the same day, may finally be an admittance that this method has failed.

No change

What the cocktail of sanctions, disengagement, and vocal condemnation have achieved over a 20-year period is very little. The opposition leader remains under house arrest, her imprisonment continually extended year after year, and opposition party members are locked up on a weekly basis. Anyone deemed guilty of dissent continues to be imprisoned, often under the most spurious of charges (read ‘sedition’ for six students currently on trial for collecting and burying corpses following cyclone Nargis last year). Land seizures, forced displacement, and the government’s hand in the burgeoning opium trade last year earned Burma the penultimate spot, alongside Iraq, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In short, state-sponsored abuses, impunity and corruption are as commonplace as they were the day the sanctions arrived.

Crucially, amidst the rubble of a crumbling economy brought on both by sanctions and wild financial mismanagement by the government, Burma has tightened its relationship with neighbouring China. Last Thursday China, who in 2008 shielded the regime from scrutiny by vetoing a UN resolution to ease repression and release political prisoners, signed a deal to build cross-border oil and gas pipelines connecting Burma’s vast off-shore natural gas reserves with its energy hungry population. It has been this relationship, along with the help of substantial Indian investment, that has handed the regime a lifeline and held them back from all-out collapse. It is also this factor, not readily addressed when George Bush slapped on another batch of sanctions in 2007, that has made Burma less inclined to bow to outside pressure.

It is also likely that the West’s almost total diplomatic disengagement from Burma has added to the ruling junta’s almost pathological fear of foreign interference. This factor has been the source much of its recent erratic behaviour, for which hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens have borne the brunt. Perhaps its most shocking manifestation was the refusal of aid following cyclone Nargis last year, with the government claiming it had the situation under control while 138,000 people were left to die. Likewise, press censorship has been strict to the point that foreign journalists are no longer allowed in the country, and Burmese reporters passing information out of the country are handed painfully long prison sentences. Not surprisingly, Burma was placed fourth from bottom in last year’s Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

Also, wary of its apparent susceptibility to an invasion, the government moved its capital away from the coast, 350 miles deep into the Burmese jungle where only government officials and amiable foreign diplomats can enter. The analogy this move offers couldn’t be more poignant: total disengagement has pushed Burma further behind its fortifications and denied the outside world access when it is most needed. Sanctions could have brought the walls tumbling down, were it not for the powerful pocket of nations that stepped in to support it.

What is needed is a wholesale review of international policy to Burma. Sanctions do not work when the target is propped up by a country, perhaps equally indifferent to international law and pressure, with the clout that China does. Neither has the softer approach of diplomatic engagement influenced the regime. The US and EU have so far only taken an either/or approach, but recent events show they could be nearing an acknowledgment its failures.

However, the painfully slow bureaucratic process needed to overturn a major foreign policy package could prove costly. Burma’s neighbour may soon become its spokesperson, the only medium through which the international community can access the hermits inside their jungle retreat, and heaven forbid this happening. China’s fiercest criticism of the Burmese government, that they show “restraint” following the shooting of protesting monks in September 2007, is a measure of how high the issue of human rights sits on their policy agenda.

With the flicker of a light from the US and EU, it is now up to the international community to act constructively, and to rid itself of the notion that diplomatic engagement cannot successfully be employed alongside well-targeted sanctions. Unless the outside world learns from recent history, the Burmese government will be forever free to repeat the past at the cost of the millions forced to keep its wheels turning.

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