Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Burma's Last Chance

by Aung Din
Far Eastern Economic Review
Posted May 26, 2009

As an exile supporting the democracy movement, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, in my homeland, Burma, I have placed faith and confidence in the international community to help end the tyranny of the military regime. Many countries in the world, including the United States, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), China, India, Japan, Canada, Australia and Korea have been involved in addressing the situation in Burma with different levels of interest, influence and responsibility. We appreciate those efforts, but the time has come to re-evaluate how best to collectively engage the international community to push for freedom in Burma.

The common belief is that nothing will change in Burma without serious action from China and India, Burma's two most powerful neighbors, and Asean. However, we must realize that Burma is a virtual captive state of China. Beijing sells weapons to Burma’s generals and provides loans and grants that keep the regime afloat. In return, China receives concessions on gas and oil drilling and energy corridors for strategic pipelines. India, the world’s largest democracy, abandoned Burma’s democracy movement a decade ago in the hopes of cozying up to the regime’s generals to check Chinese expansionism and for help in dealing with border issues. We assume that Asean, of which Burma is a member, will act responsibly to persuade the regime to stop its brutality against its own people. However, as several members of it, namely Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei and Laos are being ruled by the authoritarian governments, similar to the regime in Burma, no meaningful action from Asean can be expected. They all cannot be depended on to facilitate negotiations between the regime and its people.

To date, no consensus has been reached between the nations involved in dealing with Burma. Meetings on Burma at the United Nations Security Council always typically ended with divisions among the 15 members. Some states, led by the U.S., France and Britain would like to see focused, direct involvement by the Security Council. Others, led by China and Russia, want to push the Burma issue out of the Security Council, arguing that internal political strife does not rise to the level necessary for Security Council involvement. By using the “threat of a veto,” China effectively limits the role of the Council in Burma to statements of concern that lack accountability because they are not backed up by a credible threat of international action. The same divisions exist among the 14 member nations, known as “Friends of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Burma.”

The situation has become frustrating. People die, intimidation and oppression continue, and nothing gets done. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi is facing charges of violating her house arrest and will likely be sentenced to still more years under an armed guard isolated from her people. Talk alone is not meaningful action. Continuing within this framework will only help the regime to strengthen its grip on power. Redesigning a new and effective international mechanism is urgently required to help the people of Burma. The time has come to think outside the diplomatic box for the creation of a new international alliance to deal with Burma’s intransigent regime.

The governments of Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which can be called the “Asean Five,” have expressed their willingness to see a peaceful solution in Burma. They all have a desire to mediate between the Western democracies and the regime, as they are eager to improve the image of Asean, which has been tainted badly by the generals in Burma. Establishing a small multinational partnership on Burma, with participation of the U.S., the EU and the Asean Five, can be the driving force behind a new mechanism to bring attention, pressure, carrots and sticks to a multinational negotiating process with the regime and Burma’s democracy movement.

The “Seven Friends of Burma” (SFB) would call seniors diplomats from the group to meet as soon as possible and develop a mutually acceptable mechanism with common goals and clear benchmarks for change in Burma, and then share responsibility to act together to end Burma’s manmade disaster. The U.S. and EU should be prepared to offer incentives to the regime, and the Asean Five could take responsibility for being the “front-men” in securing positive changes from the regime in order for such incentives to be realized.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would be the perfect candidate for the group to negotiate with Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the paramount leader of the regime, to accept this mechanism and explain a process that brings permanent peace to Burma while addressing concerns of both the regime and democracy movement. Incentives alone may not work; therefore, threatening to bring Burmese generals before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity they have committed could be powerful leverage to assist the SFB in their work. This smaller group will be able to act more nimbly and have more flexibility than the larger groups that have dominated discussion on Burma without meaningful action.

There are pitfalls to this process. The Asean Five may be reluctant to engage in such a manner, and China may make the situation difficult by putting pressure on the group members to back off its client state. This new alliance will not be successful without strong leadership of U.S. President Barack Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The position of the U.S. Policy Coordinator on Burma, created by the Tom Lantos Block Burma Jade Act of 2008, should be filled as soon as possible as a signal of continuing U.S. commitment and seriousness towards Burma. The U.S. policy review on Burma that started three months ago should be finalized by maintaining sanctions and pressure, increasing diplomacy and taking a leadership role in the SFB.

In the end, true change must come from inside Burma. Yet real international action—whether in regards to Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, South Africa, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, or countless other countries—has proven a winning component of change. Situations that previously appeared intractable have a way of changing when the right strategy and high-level, constant attention are in place. We, democracy activists, look to leadership from the United States and hope for action from President Obama.

Aung Din served over four years in prison in Burma, as a political prisoner between 1989 and 1993. He is now the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, which advocates the U.S. Congress and administration regarding U.S. policy on Burma.

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