Burma thrives on divisions

The perennial question of what to do about Burma has once again arisen following the junta’s decision this week to renew the house arrest of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

There is no shortage of suggestions. The problem, activists and campaigners say, lies in securing broad-based international support for substantive action and sustaining it when attention shifts elsewhere. Such collective determination has been almost wholly lacking.

The EU, the US and various nations maintain limited sanctions against the generals.
Britain has shown a diplomatic lead in trying to put pressure on the junta, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown taking a personal interest.

In May the United Nations Security Council demanded the release of all 2100 Burmese political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and called for a “genuine” national dialogue.

But the recent chorus of Western condemnation was not matched by similar levels of concern in China, India or Thailand, Burma’s neighbours, main trading partners and the countries with most leverage.

By commuting Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence, the junta evidently hopes that these countries, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, will applaud its supposed leniency and deem no further action necessary.

As current president of the Security Council, Britain has a chance to stop that happening.

Speaking after what he called a “monstrous” verdict, Gordon Brown pointed to strengthened EU sanctions targeting the junta’s economic interests.

“The international community must take action,” he said. “I believe that the UN Security Council, whose will has been flouted, must now respond resolutely and impose a worldwide ban on the sale of arms to the regime.”

In pushing for UN action, Britain will have the support of France, a permanent council member. But China and Russia will be less co-operative.

They are committed where its suits them (although not in Taiwan or Georgia), to the principle of non-interference in nations’ sovereign affairs. And they will try to safeguard their Burmese commercial interests, not least in arms sales.

Another difficulty, less expected, concerns the US administration’s uncertain direction. A policy review has been under way since January, as yet with no clear decision about whether to engage, contain or confront the Burmese regime.

Barack Obama condemned Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial as a sham, and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, offered the junta a pathway to normalised relations last month if it took “essential steps”, such as allowing free elections next year.

But Clinton exhibited much more concern about reports that North Korea was supplying nuclear weapons technology to Burma.

Perhaps the dire prospect of a nuclear-armed junta may be the only way to galvanise the international community into effective action. But that thought worries Burma activists.

“We are concerned that if reports about Burma’s nuclear ambitions are confirmed, the focus of the international community will switch to disarming the dictatorship, not removing it, and human rights and democratisation will take second place,” said Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK.

To answer the question of what to do about Burma, Obama should join forces with Brown at the UN, where the US takes over the Security Council presidency from Britain next month.

He should seek a formal UN commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma, Ko Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, told the Far Eastern Economic Review.

“The international community remains divided on how best to deal with Burma. The regime depends on this. Ultimately the divisions help maintain the status quo and ensure their continued rule.”

A united front is essential, he said, or else thousands of innocents “who urgently need protection from the junta’s brutality will suffer the consequences”.—-

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