/ 8 July 2009

Burma: ‘Time to take off the kid gloves’

The international community has few options left for Burma after the United Nations secretary general’s failure last week to engage the recalcitrant military regime.

Having risked his reputation by accepting an invitation to visit the isolated South-East Asia state, analysts believe Ban Ki-moon left with nothing to show for his efforts.

Denying Ban even a meeting with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta, more than ever, seemed impervious to criticism and comfortable in its isolation.

”The UN secretary general card has [now] been played, Ban has lost and we’re not very surprised,” said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand, now a Burma analyst.

”I don’t know where the international community can go from here.”

The situation is likely to be discussed at the regional forum of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean ) in Phuket, Thailand, later this month, with United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in attendance.

But even if they have recently broken with tradition and ventured criticism, the smaller neighbours of Burma are unlikely to achieve much and Asean’s strategy of granting the generals membership as a way of getting them to accept regional norms on democracy will once again be shown up as a failure.

A statement reiterating demands for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners is expected, but is likely to fall on deaf ears.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on the weekend that the world was preparing to ”respond robustly” to the junta, but Burma’s snub of Ban and previous UN special envoys suggests diplomacy is futile and a tougher approach is needed.

Dealing with generals, not diplomats
”Everyone has tried diplomacy, but these are army generals we’re dealing with, not diplomats,” said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK.

”The generals are impervious to criticism, but not to pressure. They’re scared of real pressure and it’s a myth they think they’re invulnerable.”

Although not yet on the table, a UN Security Council resolution is an option, but risks opposition from China — the closest Burma has to a major ally — and Russia, who are among the five veto-wielding permanent members able to block action.

Some analysts suggest the UN should test the regime by threatening legal action over its poor human rights record, by way of an international commission of inquiry or referral to the International Court of Justice.

Increasingly, China could hold the key.

It has shown more diplomatic flexibility of late and supported two resolutions on sanctions against neighbouring North Korea for its nuclear weapons programme.

As in North Korea, Beijing is concerned about instability in Burma and might be willing to act to forestall that, lest it interfere with its considerable commercial interests.

”The generals feel they can get away with anything because China will give them blanket protection, but that may not be the case,” said Debbie Stothard from the Alternative Asean Network on Burma.

”It’s time for a UN resolution and time for Ban to take off the kid gloves regarding Burma. The regime is afraid of the Security Council, but if it doesn’t act, the generals will continue to do whatever they like,” she said. — Reuters