Sunday, July 5, 2009

With No Clear Path Out of a Diplomatic Thicket, a Push to Redraw the Map

Memo From Myanmar


YANGON (NYT), Myanmar — Some people from this country despair at the rigid choreography of what might be called the Myanmar diplomatic minuet. United Nations interlocutors come and go, declaring that the moment is at hand for the military junta to release the endlessly prosecuted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but the generals do not budge.

Over the weekend, it was Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, who, despite the weight of his personal intervention, failed to secure so much as a chat with Asia’s most famous political prisoner, much less any concessions.

The fact that Mr. Ban emerged empty-handed after his two-day visit that ended Saturday provides the strongest evidence yet that a different approach is overdue, analysts of Myanmar said.

Rather than tying negotiations, not to mention sanctions, to the treatment of just one figure, say policy analysts, humanitarian workers and exiles, the world should engage the junta on a broad range of economic, humanitarian and ethnic issues that will return electoral politics to its rightful place as one concern among many. They admit that borders on heresy, considering Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s virtual beatification in the West, but they consider it a shift she would readily accept given her lifelong commitment to solving Myanmar’s problems.

“People are angry with the U.N. because how many missions have we seen over the past 20 years jetting in and out,” said Aung Zaw, who went into exile after the bloody 1988 uprising and is now the Thailand-based editor of Irrawaddy magazine. “Have they produced any progress?”

Mr. Ban took a stab at articulating a new policy toward Myanmar, formerly Burma, in an unusual speech on Saturday to the humanitarian and diplomatic community. He called on the government to respect human rights, address the dire humanitarian needs in the wake of Cyclone Nargis that killed about 130,000 people in May 2008 and try to join the rest of Asia’s economic tigers.

But for the bulk of his visit, Mr. Ban focused on pushing for free and fair elections, and the release of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and some 2,000 other political prisoners.

What is missing from this approach, analysts note, is a vision of Myanmar as seen by Senior Gen. Than Shwe and the other four generals who together make up the ruling State Peace and Development Council. General Than Shwe views himself as having shut down a failed socialist system; opened up the country to foreign gas companies that discovered reserves worth billions of dollars; signed cease-fires with some 20 ethnic groups in guerrilla wars that lasted since independence from Britain in 1948; and pushed through a new Constitution that enshrines military control of the country behind a civilian leadership.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s sweeping national following makes her a threat to this plan. But analysts said they believed that as military men, the generals worry far more about insurgent armies financed by narco-trafficking, including the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army in the north and the Kachin Independence Army, with 10,000 men.

Senior United Nations officials are dismissive about addressing the armed conflicts, saying their General Assembly mandate covers only political matters. But critics argue that they are being too timid.

“I think we need a more general view of the problems in the country,” said Thant Myint-U, the author of a Burmese history titled “The River of Lost Footsteps” and a former United Nations official. “Some new agreement between the Burmese Army and its armed opponents is essential for new elections. The opponents with the guns are in many ways more important to them than the opponents who are locked up.”

Western attempts at isolation combined with the endless domestic civil war have made the generals comfortable in their siege mentality, analysts said. A prime way to bust through that would be humanitarian aid, though analysts say the United Nations has failed to convince donor nations of its importance. In Mr. Ban’s “Five Plus One” pillars for Myanmar, humanitarian aid comes after various aspects of political freedom and economic development.

Given Myanmar’s pariah status, countries have balked at providing aid for recovery and reconstruction. Emergency relief after Cyclone Nargis came quickly, but donors have pledged only about $100 million of the more than $600 million sought for the next phase, said Catherine Bragg, the deputy United Nations humanitarian coordinator.

A report last fall by the International Crisis Group said that aid should be seen not only as a means to alleviate suffering, “but also as a potential means of opening up a closed country, improving governance and empowering people to take control of their own lives.”

It has worked that way at least in the Irrawaddy Delta — the area hit hardest by the cyclone — where villagers have adopted a modicum of self-governance through being consulted by foreign or local organizations on issues ranging from divvying up donated tractors to revamping school curriculums.

As a result, the junta has grown wary, clamping down on visas for foreign aid workers. There is a backlog of more than 200, and 100 recently granted were just one-month extensions, Ms. Bragg said.

While some advocacy groups support lifting sanctions, they want it done in a way that helps economically vulnerable groups like textile workers and farmers. “It shouldn’t be about automatically repealing the sanctions and giving a lot of money to the regime — that would be folly,” said David Mathieson, the Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch.

United Nations members are deeply divided over Myanmar, with important trading partners like Russia and China protective of the regime and other Asian neighbors often mute. The United States is reviewing its own policy of economic and other sanctions. At his confirmation hearings last month, Kurt M. Campbell, the highest State Department official for East Asia, said that the review had been enormously complicated by the fact that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was again on trial, but that Washington was looking for “a more constructive approach.”

The hurdle, of course, is that the country’s star dissident has developed a worldwide following. “Aung San Suu Kyi is the 800-pound gorilla in Burma,” said Maureen Aung-Thwin of the International Crisis Group. “Everything that happens — elections, the political process, reconciliation — is inexorably linked to her.”

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