Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Clinton’s Burma Message

The Irrawaddy News

Hillary Clinton’s message to Burma was loud and clear, but it is still unclear what direction exactly the US will take in trying to engage the troubled country.

Upon arriving in Bangkok, the latest troubles in Burma were waiting for the US secretary of state to comment on.

However, Burma is no stranger to Clinton, since her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was the first world leader to impose economic sanctions on Burma in 1997. Today, Burma is still the region’s recalcitrant, rogue regime, regularly putting its allies and partners in the hot seat of world opinion.

Clinton said that the US is deeply concerned by the reports of continuing human rights abuses in Burma, and particularly by actions that are attributed to the Burmese military concerning the rape and abuse of young women.

It was anticipated that the US would condemn Burma’s poor human rights record, the ongoing Aung San Suu Kyi trial and the slow process of democratization. But the abuse of women’s rights was a new message on Clinton’s part.

Also, she highlighted the growing military ties between Burma and North Korea. Before her arrival, there were persistent reports of Burma’s secret military mission to North Korea and Burma’s keen interest in buying ballistic missiles.

“Now, we know that there are also growing concerns about military cooperation between North Korea and Burma, which we take very seriously,” Clinton said. “It would be destabilizing for the region. It would pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors.”

Her remarks won’t go down well with Burma’s main backers, China and Russia, who insist that Burma doesn’t pose a direct threat to regional peace and security.

The leaked 37-page document with photographs of the regime’s No 3 man, Gen Shwe Mann, who made a secret mission to Pyongyang in November via China, evidently show that the clandestine military ties between the two nations are well-advanced.

Informed sources confirmed that US and Japan intelligence agencies had been well-informed about Burma’s secret mission to North Korea long before the story broke in the exiled media.

Last month, Japanese police arrested a North Korean and two Japanese nationals for allegedly trying to export a magnetic measuring device to Burma that could be used in missile development.

In any case, Clinton’s clearly worded message will definitely set off alarm bells in Naypyidaw. It’s also known that the paranoid generals have sought advice from North Korea to build tunnels and military facilities in case of a foreign invasion or proxy war. The military regime is actively seeking jet fighters, sophisticated air defense systems and anti-aircraft, in order to have top-line defensive and offensive military weapons. The leaked document led to the arrest of several Burmese civilians and military officials by the authorities. (JEG's: so there is some truth after all in the rumour otherwise there would be no need for arrests...)

US strong advocate for democracy

Since the current regime came into power in the bloody coup of 1988, the US has been a strong ally of Burma’s democracy movement and political opposition groups.

Under President Barack Obama, US policy on Burma is undergoing a review. State Department officials said that the ongoing trial of Aung San Suu Kyi will affect the policy review. It is predicated that the new policy will be mixture of carrots and sticks. The US would like to exercise more diplomatic leverage to engage the hermit-like regime while maintaining targeted sanctions as sticks. The US is also interested in developing a more concentrated regional approach, involving the key countries in Southeast Asia.

Skeptics say that since the regime has little interest in engagement with the West, it will be difficult to depart from the previous policy adopted by the Bush administration.

Perhaps hopefully, it was once believed that the generals might want to seek a more normal relationship with the West, since Obama came into power. However, the ongoing bizarre trial of Suu Kyi and the North Korean military connection doesn’t go down well with the US, the EU or most Asean countries.

That doesn’t leave the US or other countries much room to try to normalize the relationship.

In the past, the absence of active US engagement in trying to solve the complicated problems of the region has paved the way for China’s rise in influence. China is Burma’s and North Korea’s major ally.

Thus, aside from Burma, the good news is Clinton’s broader message that the US is ready to resume an active leadership role, working in cooperation with Asian nations.

Clinton is already offering little carrots. Unlike former President Bush who called Burmese leaders tyrants, Clinton’s message to the generals was mixed.

“Our position is that we are willing to have a more productive partnership with Burma if they take steps that are self-evident,” she said.

It’s unlikely the generals will follow-up on Clinton’s offer, even though they are listening carefully.

Clinton’s concern about the growing military ties between Burma and North Korea is well noted.

Dealing with the generals is like dealing with an infectious disease that could spread quickly—often it is hard to prescribe the right treatment—and nobody can predict the outcome.

The international community must work together to find the right prescription that will cure Burma’s ills. The danger is that its problems not only affect it, but they could spill over and infect the entire region.

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