Thursday, October 25, 2007

Unity Lacking On Diplomatic Approach to Burma's Junta

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 25, 2007; Page A13

BANGKOK, Oct. 24 -- While activists focus on increasing pressure on Burma's military leaders to open a dialogue with the country's pro-democracy activists, diplomatic consensus is eroding on what steps to take next.

Pro-democracy advocates had hoped that last month's protests -- led by monks, who are revered in Burma -- would galvanize world opinion and create enough outside pressure to force the junta's leaders to the bargaining table. Indeed, for the first time, the U.N. Security Council approved a formal censure of Burma and called for all political prisoners to be released.

But now there are growing divisions among countries about the best approach to Burma. And those who sense that democracy is closer than it has been in decades are grappling with how the country's transition would be managed.

"That bright and shining moment, that's crumbled," said one diplomat, who spoke frankly on condition of anonymity. He was referring to the strong language in September from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which expressed "revulsion" at Burma's bloody crackdown on the protesters, in which at least 10 and perhaps hundreds were killed. Now, some of ASEAN's 10 members are questioning current sanctions against Burma's government, arguing that countries should engage the generals rather than cut them off. "There is no consensus," the diplomat added.

ASEAN is scheduled in November to celebrate Burma's 10-year anniversary as a member of the group and adopt a new charter that could include clauses addressing issues of human rights and good governance. Some diplomats had hoped that before the high-profile meeting, ASEAN would unify to take an active role in helping Burma, which the generals call Myanmar, toward a dialogue on democracy.

"The attempt by ASEAN to rein in the Burmese regime has been futile," said Kraisak Choonhavan, a former Thai senator now running in elections scheduled for December to reestablish a democratic government in Thailand after a 2006 coup. Kraisak said he opposes the view expressed by some governments, which urge closer cooperation with Burma's leaders, because he believes it would lead to more refugees fleeing into neighboring Thailand.

About 3 million Burmese migrants already live in Thailand, Kraisak said. "All the migrants tell one story -- about abuse of power by the military."

China and India, meanwhile, which are vying to deepen their strong business ties in resource-rich Burma, have taken a hands-off attitude in the aftermath of the government's crackdown. U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari met Wednesday with China's assistant foreign minister, He Yafei, in the first of two days of talks about Burma. The Chinese official expressed support for Gambari's attempt to structure a meaningful dialogue, but reiterated China's position that Burma's problems are an internal matter.

Activists say they believe China might be vulnerable to pressure to reconsider its position because the day it picked to open the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Aug. 8, is the same date when in 1988 the Burmese military crushed a student-led protest, killing an estimated 3,000 people.

Burmese authorities, meanwhile, have arrested seven more dissidents since Saturday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which tracks, documents and reports on those missing and detained in the country. The government continues to stage rallies throughout the country condemning last month's protests.

At the same time, the generals are trying to convey a greater sense of movement and openness. They invited U.N. human rights envoy Paulo S¿rgio Pinheiro to visit the country before the ASEAN summit in Singapore in November. Activists urge that he be given wide freedom to go where he wants and interview whomever he pleases. Pinheiro has not been granted a visa to Burma, despite several requests, since 2003. Burma's leaders also said they would invite selected journalists from ASEAN nations to the country in advance of the summit.

This month, the generals appointed a liaison to lay the groundwork for talks with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who as of Wednesday has been imprisoned or detained by the regime for exactly 12 years, a point underscored in protests staged by her supporters in 12 cities around the world. The military leaders, however, have set conditions that make it unlikely any talks will occur, experts say.

"The government is just playing games," said Bertil Lintner, an author and prominent expert on Burma.

He said it is naive to think that Burma's top military ruler, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, would step aside as a result of a dialogue. Lintner said he believes the government is eating up time, as it has many times before, hoping world attention fades.

Monks in Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city, have returned to collecting alms each morning. But in Rangoon, also the scene of protests led by monks last month, few of them are visible.

One Burmese adviser to last month's protesters, interviewed on condition of anonymity in the back of a darkened coffee shop in Rangoon this week, said he believed that only continued global attention would move the junta into dialogue. He acknowledged that a transition to democracy in Burma would raise difficult problems but said that anything is better than the current state of affairs.

"We are daily faced with depression," he said, describing the many dysfunctional aspects of Burma's economy, most of which is controlled by the military government. "The hard part is to shape a democracy in such a situation. We are a spiritually collapsed, physically poor, economically darkened country."

Still, he welcomes the challenge of a transition to democracy, he said, and thinks other Burmese do, too, especially students. "Most students have been kept out of politics for the past 40 years," he said. "I was afraid they didn't know our political careers, how our generation protested the government. But in September we learned we have many youths willing to sacrifice for the cause."

Debbie Stothard, coordinator of Altsean-Burma, a human rights advocacy group, said she hopes it does not come to that. "We would prefer to avoid another round of bloodshed," she said. "If people came out, it would be a repeat of September. These people cannot defend themselves. Their courage should be matched by the political will of the international community."

She quoted opposition leader Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, who in 1994 cited a Burmese saying to describe government stall tactics: "It's very, very difficult to wake somebody up who is pretending to be asleep."

No comments: