/ 21 January 2008

Burma going ‘downhill on all fronts’, says US

Burma is going ”downhill on all fronts”, a senior United States diplomat said during a visit to Vietnam on Monday, urging regional neighbours to pressure the junta running the country.

”The regime in Burma is absolutely refusing to take any positive steps at all, either in response to its own people or to the international community,” said US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel.

”It should be a cause of concern for everybody, because [of] the way Burma is going under this regime and its policies are sort of downhill on all fronts,” he told a media briefing during a Hanoi stop on a regional tour.

”We talk about it mostly in terms of human rights and democracy and that’s critically important to us, but it’s beyond that,” he said. ”The economy is going downhill, the education system is getting ruined.

”The healthcare system isn’t functioning … you’re getting more and more cases of resistant strains of tuberculosis and malaria out of Burma. You’ve got refugee flows out of Burma. It’s just a whole series of problems.”

Burma faces mounting pressure for democratic reform after its crackdown on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks last September triggered widespread international outrage and tighter Western sanctions.

The United Nations says at least 31 people were killed during the suppression of the protests, and 74 remain missing.

Marciel said he had spoken about Burma with officials in Tokyo, Phnom Penh and Hanoi and would also raise the topic in Bangkok and Vientiane soon, urging all governments to push for change.

”Our sense is that there is no easy solution, but for Burma to begin to turn around in a very general sense, it’s not really going to happen and can’t really happen under this regime,” he said.

”They just don’t have the wherewithal, they have got no popular support, no legitimacy and frankly not very many good ideas.”

Marciel said the junta, by allowing a UN mediator to visit after the crackdown, and holding limited dialogue with the opposition, ”took a few little steps early on … and basically nothing since then”.

”So our message is, going back to business as usual isn’t really a very good option because the problems, the root causes that led to the protests and the violence in September haven’t been addressed at all.”

The regime needed to start serious talks with the opposition leader, he said, adding that ”taking Aung San Suu Kyi away from house arrest once every two months for an hour meeting isn’t a dialogue”.

Marciel said the international community needed to keep up the pressure.

”Everybody says they weighed in diplomatically — the Indians, the Chinese, Asean [Association of South-East Asian Nations members]. What we’re saying is, please keep doing it. A one-time weigh-in isn’t so helpful.” — AFP