Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Viable way out for Burma

By Nehginpao Kipgen
Asian News Net - The Brunei Times

To allay the international community's outrage over the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi for another 18 months, Burma's military junta was looking to show a good gesture. This opportunity came when Jim Webb, a US senator from Virginia, visited the reclusive country on August 14.

The junta took two significant steps to water down international criticisms, particularly the US government. First, the junta agreed to deport John William Yettaw; second, the junta granted Jim Webb a meeting with both Suu Kyi and Than Shwe.

Yettaw, who the junta used for Suu Kyi's conviction, was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment on August 11. By releasing him, the junta wants to convey the message of humanity and peace. Moreover, it is Suu Kyi who the military leaders fear and not Yettaw. Yettaw's case was manipulated to find a reason to indict Suu Kyi so that she can be barred from participating in the 2010 election.

The Burmese junta understands Jim Webb's Southeast Asia policy. The senator has been a vocal advocate for engaging the military junta, a policy which Obama administration envisages. Though the congressman was not an official envoy of the White House, his position as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee speaks a lot to the Burma's military generals. The US government has been very critical of the military regime since 1988. The military junta fears Washington partly because of its military power and its global political status as the lone super power.

To many surprise, the junta chief congratulated then-presidential candidate Barack Obama when the latter won primary elections last year. Than Shwe again congratulated Obama when he sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America. He was optimistic with the first black president's campaigns to pursue diplomatic channels in his foreign policies. In the meantime, Than Shwe understands the ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council as long as he can convince China and Russia to stand on his side.

Though Washington had not considered a unilateral military action against Naypyidaw, the military leaders had a lingering fear, especially in the aftermath of Iraq invasion. During last month's UN secretary general's visit to Burma, Than Shwe denied Ban Ki-moon's request to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. The military chief gave the reason that Suu Kyi was facing trial in the court.

Despite the secretary general's ongoing personal involvement in trying to help resolve the political crisis in Burma, no concrete solution is expected before the 2010 election. This is partly due to the intransigent nature of the military junta and also due to lack of strong backing from the Security Council. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made through the secretary general special envoy's visits and through friends of Myanmar.

No tangible solution is also expected from the engagement policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which Burma is a member.

If it seriously considers helping establish a democratic society in Burma, the US government can be the most effective nation. This does not, however, advocates the unconditional lifting of sanctions. Both carrot and stick should be used in dealing with the recalcitrant military junta.

A special envoy who knows and understands the region will be a wise option, but the new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, can also be assigned. Isolation has been applied unsuccessfully for many years, and it is now time to give engagement a chance.

Jim Webb, who met with Than Shwe and Suu Kyi, should have been briefed the political views from both the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) on how to move forward with a reconciliation programme. Though no unanimity can be reached at the UN Security Council for any punitive action against the military junta, China and Russia will likely throw their support if Washington chooses engagement.

Engaging Burma does not simply mean rewarding the military junta; it should rather be viewed as a possible way out of the continued political crisis. Engaging Myanmar should be inclusive of all ethnic nationalities, the NLD and SPDC.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com).

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