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New Report Criticizes International Approaches to Bring About Change in Burma - 2004-04-30

A new report criticizes international approaches for bringing about change in Burma's military regime. The Belgium-based independent International Crisis Group says neither sanctions by the West, nor engagement by Burma's regional neighbors, have succeeded in pushing the country toward democracy. Burma is scheduled to hold a constitutional convention May 17, and the international community is watching closely to see if there will be any progress toward democracy.

Burma's military leaders raised international alarm in 1990, when they nullified elections swept by the National League for Democracy, or NLD. They have since repressed NLD activities and repeatedly placed party leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. In the latest case, she has been confined to her home since May 2003.

The United States and the European Union responded by applying, then tightening, international sanctions on the military government. While members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, chose to influence the country through engagement, even admitting Burma as a member in 1997.

This week, the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, or ICG, issued a report criticizing both approaches as ineffective. ICG's Asia Program Director Robert Templer is blunt about U.S. sanctions.

"The unfortunate thing about Burma is that it doesn't matter enough to anybody for there to be any really serious policy making done on it and therefore, it is very easy for the U.S. government to have an extremely dumb policy on it," he said. "And that's what it is - a completely failed policy."

Mr. Templer says the NLD - which supports sanctions - and the United States should accept that the results of the 1990 election will probably not be reinstated, a decade and a half after the fact. He calls upon the United States to give up "unrealistic" goals of sanctions.

"In Burma, the case is that the government has to give up power," said Mr. Templer. "That's not realistic. No government is going to do that under that kind of pressure. And no government has done that under that kind of pressure."

At the same time, Mr. Templer says the ASEAN engagement policy has been too weak. But he adds ASEAN nations would probably take a harder line on Burma, if they were in a better position to cooperate with the United States.

"Quite often, particularly if you're eager to stick a finger in the eye of America, as a lot of these countries are eager to do, then this is the way to do it," he said. "So any policy that actually creates a greater level of international consensus is much more likely to have an impact."

The ICG report says Asian nations and the United States should coordinate a policy that does not seek a "quick or dramatic" end to Burma's problems. Instead, it says the new policy should give Burma incentives to take concrete steps toward reform.

One of the first steps named in the report is the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma's government has hinted, but not confirmed, she may be released in time for next month's constitutional convention.

The report also calls on the United Nations to coordinate and oversee a policy, which would give Burma incentives for step-by-step change. The plan would include greater access to international lending, and a gradual removal of trade and travel sanctions.