Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sticks or Carrots?

The Irrawaddy News
AUGUST, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.5

The new US administration has sent a strong signal that it wants to take a more active role in dealing with Burma

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

Upon arriving in Bangkok to attend the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) held in Phuket, Thailand, Clinton wasted no time in commenting on Burma’s troubles. She said that the US was deeply concerned by reports of continuing human rights abuses in Burma, and was particularly appalled by the rape and abuse of young women by members of the Burmese armed forces.

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

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

The latest cause for concern is the growing military partnership that is forming between Burma and North Korea. Before Clinton’s arrival, there were persistent reports of a secret military mission to Pyongyang by high-ranking Burmese officials and Naypyidaw’s keen interest in buying North Korean ballistic missiles.

“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.”

US officials even expressed concerns about a possible nuclear technology transfer from North Korea to Burma.

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—a position made less tenable by the release of a secret internal document detailing Naypyidaw’s dealings with Pyongyang.

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 Japanese intelligence agencies already knew 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 on how to build tunnels and military facilities to fend off a foreign invasion or proxy war. The regime is also actively seeking jet fighters, sophisticated air-defense systems and anti-aircraft weapons in order to bolster its defensive and offensive military capabilities.

Reflecting the sensitivity of Burma’s efforts to substantially strengthen its military might, several Burmese civilians and military officials were arrested recently in connection with the leaking of the secret document.

Since the current regime came into power in the bloody coup of 1988, the US has been a strong supporter 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 Suu Kyi will affect the policy review, which is expected to be a 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.

Some believed, perhaps too optimistically, that the generals might want to seek a more normal relationship with the West once Obama came to power. However, the bizarre trial of Suu Kyi and the North Korean military connection show how little the junta cares about what leaders in the US, the EU or most Asean countries think.

The absence of active US engagement in trying to solve the complicated problems of the region during the Bush administration paved the way for China’s rise in influence. The good news, then, is that Clinton’s broader message is that the US is ready to resume an active leadership role in the region, working in cooperation with Asian nations.

Clinton is already offering some carrots to Burma. “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, adding that if the regime released Suu Kyi, Burma would benefit from better relations with the US, including investment. It is now up to the regime to choose.

If Clinton wants to help Burma, she needs to look at the country’s problems clinically and realize that dealing with the junta is like coping with an infectious disease. If it is not handled carefully, the regime is capable of spreading the contagion of instability to other countries.

The US must therefore use its influence to persuade other countries in the region that it is in their best interests to tackle the problem proactively, instead of merely trying to contain it in the hope that things will somehow get better on their own.

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