Sunday, June 14, 2009

UN should treat Burma as it has North Korea

Security Council's new-found unity shows it can overcome its own past

(The Nation) -After long and excruciating negotiations over the new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council to punish North Korea for its nuclear-weapons test, once again the council has shown its ability to act in response to a crisis that genuinely threatens global peace and stability. What Pyongyang has done has so rubbed the raw nerves of key players that they are acting with common positions and standards. It is rare indeed for them to agree on common retaliation against North Korea's stubbornness.

This time the harsher sanctions are more targeted, including weapons exports and financial transactions. Furthermore, the resolution allows inspections in port and on the high seas of ships suspected of carrying nuclear technology. It urges North Korea to return to the six-party talks immediately without conditions and abandon its nuclear ambitions. This shows the determination of the 15-member council to adhere to its international obligations.

Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said of the council's attitude towards Burma and its continued oppression of its citizens. Although the council adopted a non-binding resolution last month in response to the continued detention and farcical trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, it still lacks the teeth to punish one of the world's worst regimes. Like North Korea, Burma's military leaders know how to test the water and push the envelope. They have succeeded before, knowing full well that the council, with its different players and national interests, will never agree on a common plan of action. Worse, the council's attention span is usually brief given the myriad global issues confronting it.

For the time being, the Burmese junta is obviously correct in its assessment. Despite some bridging of the gap between members preferring tougher sanctions and those advocating a softer approach, the council does not see eye to eye on reprimanding Burma. Of course, the five permanent members have something to do with this. Previously, both China and Russia opposed any attempt by the council to punish Burma for nearly two decades of continued intransigence. They have since ameliorated their positions but are no nearer uniting with the other members to deliver a stronger message.

Obviously the junta leaders are now playing hide and seek, testing the international community's determination and the sustainability of Asean positions against them, as witness their attempt to create havoc along the Thai border following Thailand's growing assertiveness by attacking minority groups so as to scarce the Thai security forces. This pattern of diplomatic brinksmanship has worked for the junta all along. If the international community, particularly the council, remains divided, pariah states can continue to exploit it. The new sanctions against North Korea are a case in point.

Burma has delayed the trial of Suu Kyi for an additional two weeks. Of course, the junta is watching closely how the international community reacts to the ongoing court case and to her plight. International pressure has increased by the day. Major world leaders have spoken in support of her and called for her release. Asean has been firm. Burma's continued attack on Thailand as the Asean chair is aimed at undermining its position as such. It is to be hoped that Asean positions will be bolstered by increasing support from the international community.

The North Koreans and the Burmese have suffered tremendously because of their leaders. Both countries have spent heavily on arms and left their citizens starving in the expectation of foreign assistance. The Burmese have risen several times since 1988 demanding democratic change and been violently put down. This could happen again due to economic hardship and rising fuel prices. The North Koreans have yet to do this.

It is pivotal that when the council puts its mind to fighting pariah states such as North Korea and Burma it is intelligent and united, otherwise it will be manipulated and exploited, especially when there are cracks in its ranks. It backed Friday's tough sanctions against North Korea; it is to be hoped that in the near future it will do the same in the case of Burma.

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