Sunday, March 15, 2009

U.S. in a quandary over policy on Myanmar

By Seth Mydans
Published: March 15, 2009

BANGKOK: It has been a policy of unintended consequences — two decades of isolation and sanctions by the United States that only made Myanmar's ruling generals more stubborn — and now a new administration in Washington has declared it a failure.

But U.S. officials also say they don't know what else to do.

"Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in February. "Reaching out and trying to engage them hasn't influenced them, either," she said, referring to the policies of Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbors.

"We are conducting a review, because we want to see the best ideas about to influence the Burmese regime," she said during a visit to Indonesia. "And we are looking at every possible idea that can be presented."

Where that will lead is still unclear. Putting it bluntly, Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state, said soon afterward: "The fact is, there isn't any obvious way ahead."

Over the years, the United States has attempted to curb political repression and human rights violations in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, with ever-tighter economic restrictions and diplomatic pressure, accompanied by warnings and condemnation.

The sanctions began with an arms embargo after a massacre of as many as 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988. Broader sanctions were imposed in 1997 and 2003 in protest of human rights violations that included restrictions on the freedom of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition figures.

The European Union and other countries have put in place their own embargoes, and analysts say those countries would have to be consulted in any policy change.

But Myanmar's military has not budged. Political opponents are still jailed by the hundreds, free speech and assembly are still smothered, the wealthy generals still leave their people in grinding poverty, and any protests are crushed by force.

Rather than forcing change, many analysts say, the confrontational approach has made the generals more stubborn, more repressive and more antagonistic toward the West. The policy has deprived the United States of useful contacts within the government and has left it with little leverage to affect the junta's behavior. And it has held back the emergence of a middle class that could have pushed for change.

"Continued pressure on the regime to change in unacceptable ways to them forced them inward," said Robert Taylor, a consultant in London on Myanmar affairs, in an e-mail message. "Had sanctions not helped end foreign investments in the 1990s, Myanmar would now be involved in the world economy, like Vietnam perhaps," he said. "Opening the country up now will be many times harder than it would have been in the early 1990s, or even seven years ago."

Economic sanctions have also been undermined by continuing trade and investment from Myanmar's neighbors China, India and the Southeast Asian nations.

Western nations learned the limits of their influence when the military crushed an uprising led by Buddhist monks in late 2007, ignoring threats and condemnation from around the world. A new round of sanctions was imposed, with little effect.

Since then, a sense of the futility of sanctions has grown among many exiles and foreign analysts.

Even the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, said in February that "continued confrontation and economic sanctions" were "not beneficial to the country and its people."

The statement is significant because the National League for Democracy is the party of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has been held under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years.

She is an original proponent of sanctions, and her views have had a strong impact on American policy. But because she has been cut off from the outside world, it is difficult to know what she would say today. Without her influence, said David Steinberg, an expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University, America's reassessment might have come earlier.

In any case, a weakening of sanctions would face tough opposition in Washington, where the policy carries emotional resonance and has many backers in Congress and among human rights groups.

"I think we have to stay the course and use this form of pressure to push the regime to greater dialogue," said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of Altsean-Burma, a regional human rights group. "If you want to throw away the best cards that you have, you are setting yourselves up for failure."

Sanctions may not be an all-or-nothing issue, though, said Sean Turnell, an expert on the Burmese economy at Macquarie University in Sydney.

He pointed to "targeted sanctions" that aim to cripple the financial dealings of the junta and its associates and "send exactly the right message to the people the message needs to be sent to."
Some of Washington's current sanctions fit this description, blocking certain bank transactions and visa permits. It is broad-based embargoes on trade and investment that critics argue are hurting the general population more than the generals in power.

In an influential report last October, the International Crisis Group, an independent research and advocacy group, said the aftermath of the devastating cyclone last year could be an opportunity for productive engagement. The cyclone took 138,000 lives when it struck the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, and at first the junta — true to its insular and suspicious nature — barred large-scale foreign aid.

But in the months since then, the crisis group said, Myanmar had entered a period of "unprecedented cooperation between the government and international humanitarian agencies." Visas and travel permits have been streamlined, and working conditions have become more open. The crisis group said some nations that seek to influence Myanmar's behavior had been slow to seize this opportunity, still held back by old policies of rejection.

It concluded: "Twenty years of aid restrictions — which see Myanmar receiving 20 times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries — have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change."

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