Wednesday, May 6, 2009

No Room for Wishful Thinking in Sanctions Debate

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win has called during a recent visit to Cuba for an end to sanctions imposed on developing countries—including his own. Nyan Win’s call came as the US conducts a review of its policy on Burma.

The former army officer, whose loyalty to Than Shwe is not in doubt, may have thought that Cuba is the right place to call for lifting sanctions as President Barack Obama recently made some conciliatory gestures towards the regime in Cuba. But Cuba is not alone.

Obama has been extending an olive branch to the members of the “axis of evil” and “outposts of tyranny” so loudly condemned by his predecessor, George W Bush. They include North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Burma.

Now the Burma policy forged by the Bush administration is under review, a process that began when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Asia in February.

During her Asian tour, Clinton said neither sanctions nor engagement had succeeded in bringing about change in Burma.

A month later, Stephen Blake, director of the US State Department’s Office of Mainland Southeast Asia, visited the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, where he met Nyan Win. Blake was the highest-ranking US official to visit Burma in recent years.

Burma’s state-run media reported that Blake and Nyan Win discussed issues of mutual interest and the promotion of bilateral relations.

Blake’s visit and Clinton’s remarks on Burma stirred speculation about a possible policy shift by the Obama administration. There has even been some talk of a relaxation of sanctions—although Richard Verma, the assistant secretary for legislative affairs who handles relations between the State Department and Congress, wrote a letter to Republican Congressman Peter King saying reports that the US would lift sanctions were “incorrect.”

According to an AFP report, Verma said: “The sanctions that the United States and other countries maintain against the regime are an important part of our efforts to support change in Burma.

“While we are currently reviewing our Burma policy, we can assure you that we remain committed to delivering a firm message on the need for real reform, including the initiation of a credible and inclusive dialogue with the democratic opposition and the release of political prisoners.”

In July 2008, the US signed into law the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act 2008. The act has three aims: to impose new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the leaders of the junta and their associates; to tighten the economic sanctions imposed in 2003 by outlawing the importation of Burmese gems to the US; and to create a new position of “US Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma.”

Recently, the EU renewed its own economic sanctions on Burma for a further year, during a foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg.

The EU said it would continue to work to establish an open dialogue with the ruling generals. It also called for the junta to conduct a genuine dialogue with opposition and ethnic groups.

So in the foreseeable future, Burma will continue to be punished by the Western sanctions since no single tangible positive development has been detected in the country. But, on the other hand, the old debate over sanctions has returned.

Thaung Htun, representative of the exiled government of Burma, wrote in European Voice that the debate so far has tended to see sanctions as a silver bullet.

“However, it defies logic or precedent to assume sanctions can, as a lone policy tool, generate the sort of drastic reform in Burma that is needed,” Thaung Htun said.

He argued that the government in exile supported sanctions because “they have an impact on the Burmese regime and this has been admitted time and again by the generals.”

But, he added, “it has never envisaged a system of Cuba-style blanket blocks on Burmese economic activity. Any sanctions must be targeted to maximize the impact on the junta and to minimize pressure on ordinary Burmese people.”

However, Burmese opposition and critics of the regime inside and outside Burma favor US engagement in Burma but they are cautious. They want sanctions to be maintained until the regime relaxes its grip on power.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has advocated pressure and sanctions on Burma, wrote in the Washington Post recently: “America should engage Burma, but it should not engage in wishful thinking.

“Nothing in our experience suggests that offers of aid will cause Burma’s generals to change course; unlike some authoritarian regimes, this one seems to care not a bit for the economic well being of its country.”

The irony is that the regime in Burma is eager to improve its relations with the US but is not ready to offer anything tangible.

Burma still holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and there are no signs that the regime is going to free them and embark on genuine political reform.

So what is the US policy on Burma and rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran likely to be?

Jackson Diehl wrote in the Washington Post recently: “The first wake-up call has come from North Korea—a state that, according to established Democratic wisdom, would have given up its nuclear weapons years ago if it had not been labeled ‘evil’ by Bush, denied bilateral talks with Washington and punished with sanctions. Stephen Bosworth, the administration's new special envoy, duly tried to head off Pyongyang's latest illegal missile test by promising bilateral negotiations and offering ‘incentives’ for good behavior.”

How has North Korea reacted to the arrival of Obama in the White House? It has fired its missile, anyway, expelled UN inspectors and announced that it was returning to plutonium production.

What about Iran? Jackson Diehl wrote: “Obama sent a conciliatory public message to Iranians, and the United States joined in a multilateral proposal for new negotiations on its nuclear program. The regime responded by announcing another expansion of its uranium enrichment facility and placing an American journalist on trial for espionage.”
Than Shwe, for his part, is eager to normalize relations with the US but he is one sided and doesn’t understand the language of compromise.

First, the regime rejects all international appeals to release Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. Nor does Than Shwe listen to international appeals for a review of his “road map” to make it inclusive. He is not interested.

While not bothering to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, Than Shwe has arrogantly claimed at a top brass meeting that Burma has almost tripled its rice production over the past two decades, boasting a food surplus despite the destruction in the delta and reports of famine and food shortage in Chin State.

“There is no need to worry about food even when the nation's population reaches 100 million,” Than Shwe boasted.

A leader of one of the poorest countries in the world clearly doesn’t believe in wishful thinking.

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