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US Presses for Toughening Sanctions on Burma - 2003-06-12

The United States is among many countries working to toughen sanctions on Burma, after its government cracked down on opposition leaders. That has led to new debate over the effectiveness of sanctions, especially in Asia, where many governments have been trying to engage Rangoon.

When the Burmese government detained Aung San Suu Kyi and the top leaders of her National League for Democracy party, the United States, Europe, and Japan condemned the move, and raised the threat of tougher sanctions against Burma.

But elsewhere in Asia, except for expressions of concern from a couple of governments, the response has been muted.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which groups 10 countries in the region, said it would inquire about the detentions, but could not pass judgment since Burma is a member.

Ronald May is a professor at Australia National University's Asia Center. He notes that when The Association of Southeast Asian Nations admitted Burma six years ago, it hoped that it would help end years of confrontation between its military leaders and pro-democracy activists.

"The intention was that, probably, the best route to go is one that does gradually try and get dialogue going and provide a gradual pressure to open the door a bit, and to provide an environment in which some liberalization can take place," said Mr. May.

This policy, supported to varying degrees by Australia and the Scandinavian countries, seemed to be working, though slowly. Aung San Suu Kyi and several hundred NLD leaders were released from detention last year, and the government allowed them to resume some political activity.

But the crackdown two weeks ago, after a clash between NLD supporters and pro-government groups, set back engagement efforts.

The editor of the Burma oriented Irriwaddy magazine, Aung Zaw, says ASEAN leaders should be embarrassed, because they have not used their warming relations with Burma to press for reform.

"The ASEAN leaders have been silent on the issues in Burma. So, I think ASEAN failed to take Burma to the right track. I think ASEAN should also share responsibility for what's going on now in Burma."

ASEAN leaders say the Burmese government has assured them the detentions are temporary, and it remains committed to democratization.

But a spokesman for the human rights group Forum Asia, Sunai Phasuk, says the engagement policy has played into the hands of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, which he says is not sincere about reform.

"By doing constructive engagement, it allowed the SPDC to buy time and continue to abuse Aung San Suu Kyi, continue to harass members of the NLD and continue to distort the spirit of political reconciliation in Burma."

Many exiled Burmese opposition groups support greater sanctions. The NLD also supports economic sanctions, except for humanitarian aid.

But most Asian governments think sanctions have not achieved the desired results, and only hurt the impoverished Burmese people. They are increasingly trading with Burma.

A professor at the University of the Philippines, Noel Morada, says sanctions cannot work, as long as some countries reject them.

"As long as you have China providing continuing aid to the military junta, it is not going to work, the sanctions, because, in the first place, I do not think there is much that Myanmar or the military junta will do, even if you have these sanctions by the U.S. I think the important players here would definitely be ASEAN and China."

China says the crackdown in Burma is an internal affair, indicating that it intends to continue trade and development projects there.

Professor May of Australia National University says that, despite the crackdown, he doubts the supporters of engagement with Burma will change their view.

"I do not think Australia or the Scandinavian countries or some of the ASEAN partners will change their commitment to that viewpoint in the longer term, but clearly they are not going to pursue it with much enthusiasm right now."

There are indications that Burma's friends are themselves coming under heavier pressure to support sanctions. President Bush raised the matter this week with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Secretary of State Colin Powell says he intends to press the issue at a regional forum in Cambodia next week.