Monday, June 1, 2009

Sink or Swim

The Irrawaddy Magazine
MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3

Can efforts to relax US sanctions against Burma stay afloat in the wake of John William Yettaw’s fateful swim across Inya Lake?

NOBODY knows for sure what inspired John William Yettaw to don a pair of homemade flippers and swim across Inya Lake to the home of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. But if his intention was to frustrate efforts to open a new chapter in US relations with Burma’s ruling regime, all we can say is: Mission Accomplished.

Suu Kyi enters the Insein Prison building where the trial is being held.

Of course, Yettaw should not be the one held accountable for the hardening of attitudes toward the Burmese junta in the wake of this incident. For that, Burma’s generals have only themselves to thank.

It was the regime’s decision to exploit this episode as a pretext for extending Suu Kyi’s illegal detention that prompted US President Barack Obama to renew sanctions on Burma on May 15, ending months of speculation that the new administration was steering away from the hard-line stance of Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush.

This is a serious blow to those who had hoped that Obama’s message of change would somehow reach Burma, where the junta’s obstinate grip on power has long been met with an equally unyielding adherence to sanctions by the world’s superpower.

Suu Kyi is escorted to a car after a session of the trial attended by reporters and diplomats.

Critics of the US sanctions policy say that it has failed to have any real impact on Burma, apart from putting its people more at the mercy of the generals, whose regional allies, such as China, India and Thailand, have shown little compunction about engaging with the junta to advance their own commercial and geopolitical objectives.

Soon after taking office, new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the limited effectiveness of sanctions as a policy tool. Speaking during a tour of Asia in February, she noted that neither sanctions nor engagement had succeeded in moving Burma closer to democracy. This set off a vigorous debate among Burmese exiles and other close observers about the possible outcome of a review of US policy on Burma.

Sources close to the action in Washington said they wouldn’t be surprised if Obama signaled a more conciliatory approach to Burma by referring to the country as “Myanmar,” its official name under the current regime. Others suggested he might upgrade the American diplomatic mission in Burma, where the US has a huge new embassy, but has had no ambassador since the junta seized power in 1988.

But even such symbolic gestures now seem unlikely, as the junta moves forward with its efforts to marginalize the democratic opposition by going after its major figurehead with a zeal that we have not seen since the Depayin massacre of May 2003, when Suu Kyi and her supporters came under attack from murderous pro-junta thugs.

With Suu Kyi facing imprisonment for allegedly violating the conditions of her house arrest—a charge stemming from Yettaw’s uninvited visit—the Obama administration has shown that it is in no mood to cut the regime any slack.

“We reject their baseless charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, their continuing resistance to a free and open electoral process,” Clinton told senators at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on State and Foreign Affairs.

“If they stay on the track they’re on, their elections in 2010 will be totally illegitimate and without any meaning in the international community,” Clinton warned.

By linking Suu Kyi’s arrest and detention in Insein Prison to the credibility of elections planned for next year, Clinton underscored the longstanding US insistence that Washington will not accept the junta’s “road map” to a military-dominated quasi-democracy unless it includes the democratic opposition.

Barricades are set up at a road junction in Rangoon
amid high security in the former capital. (Photo: Reuters)

This refusal to embrace a junta-engineered end to Burma’s political deadlock contrasts with the attitude of many other governments—including not only those of Burma’s Asian neighbors, but also some in Europe—that have been more inclined to regard the 2010 elections as a potential watershed in a gradual transition to genuine democracy.

While many have focused on next year’s elections as an opportunity to advance the cause of Burmese democracy, others have identified last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis as a turning point in Burma’s engagement with the outside world.

Nargis, which revealed the extent of the country’s desperate need for humanitarian aid, also supposedly opened up the possibility of large-scale cooperation between the regime and the international community.

On May 8, several prominent proponents of humanitarian engagement with the junta held a meeting at a US Senate office building to discuss the “view from the ground” in the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta. The gathering, co-sponsored by the US-Asean Business Council and the relief agency Refugees International, also included speakers representing the governments of Thailand, Singapore, Norway, Japan and Australia.

Police and security forces man a checkpoint
outside Insein Prison. (Photo: Reuters)

It remains to be seen what impact, if any, this meeting will have on US policy on Burma. But it is interesting as evidence of the coalition of disparate interests that is forming around this issue, and the growing momentum of the movement to challenge decades of sanctions-based policies in favor of an approach that will inevitably involve bestowing some measure of legitimacy upon Burma’s present rulers.

For now, however, the push to do away with sanctions appears to be dead in the water, as the Yettaw affair has served as a reminder of the sort of intransigence that the regime displayed in the crucial early weeks after Cyclone Nargis, when countless lives were lost because of the junta’s xenophobic response to offers of foreign assistance.

If opponents of US sanctions are hoping for any breakthroughs, they will have to keep a keen eye on Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the man who holds all the cards. Until he demonstrates that he is prepared to meet the expectations of countries that care about the rule of law, there will be little talk in Washington of relaxing sanctions.

Than Shwe now has three options: He could give in to international demands and release Suu Kyi; he could say sanctions be damned and throw her in prison; or he could restore the status quo and put her back under house arrest.

Of these three, the third seems most in keeping with the method that usually lies behind Than Shwe’s madness. By escalating fears about Suu Kyi’s safety and then simply sending her back to her home, he would be showing the world that he is willing to “compromise.”

But at this stage, such a display of false magnanimity will probably do little to help the pro-engagement camp. Advocates of major changes in US policy on Burma may believe that they have a strong case to make, but as long as they are at the mercy of Than Shwe’s cynical ploys, they will just be treading water.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too