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Monday, October 15

Writing a new playbook on Burma

What is all this nattering reaching my ears that UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari can't hope to make a whit of progress with Burma's junta? Gee. Some people. The very kind who throw down their rifle and cry, "We're defeated!" after taking two rounds of incoming fire.

Mr Gambari is not only visiting Burma this time around -- his second trip there in two weeks. He landed in Thailand yesterday to meet with top leaders there, and he'll be going on to meet with leaders in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China and Japan. Those visits will be to work out a concerted effort to pressure Burma's junta.

I note Gambari's itinerary does not include Singapore, which, as I noted yesterday, seems to be the key nation when it comes to arm-twisting Burma's generals. But I don't think it takes a crystal ball to observe that Singapore is waiting to see which way the wind blows for other ASEAN members before applying pressure.

This said, I appreciate the points made by Thailand's (army-installed) Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont. He doesn't think the UN can do much good on its own.
"Given the existing personnel and budget [devoted by the UN to Myanmar's issues], I do not see any chance for such changes [in the regime]," he said.

The Thai premier, however, vowed to continue working with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to push for a peaceful resolution in Myanmar.

"A majority of the world community expects that ASEAN should be able to something on Myanmar," Surayud said.

"Both Thailand and Myanmar are members of ASEAN. Three parties -- ASEAN, the UN and powerful countries like China and India -- must work together to bring about developments in Myanmar," he added
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So it's early days. Burma has never before received so much attention from the outside world. Those outside Burma wonder why soldiers could shoot protestors in full view of the world. But the 'world watching' really didn't mean anything to them last month because they had no experience with such close monitoring.

Burma's regime flourished in the darkness of the world's inattention. Well, now we're attending, and now the regime is discovering what it means to attend.

New Delhi has been mincing around, but every major political party in India is now demanding that Delhi revert to their 1990s policy of giving strong support to Burma's democratic opposition. And India's feisty press is pounding home the message.

Think Brussels is acting wimpy? Check out the latest news from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Britain's Foreign Minister David Miliband -- and note the mention of "further measures" (read "energy contracts"):
Last month, as the demonstrations grew in intensity, the European Union made it plain that it would not hesitate to impose tougher measures against the regime if it resorted to force against peaceful demonstrators. Sadly, the regime failed to heed this, and many similar, warnings. So Europe's foreign ministers will be meeting on Monday to discuss how to toughen up sanctions against the Burmese regime.

EU sanctions currently include a travel ban and asset freeze on specific individuals and a ban on commercial dealings with specific state companies with close ties to the regime. On Monday, the European Union will target those sectors from which the regime draws much of its revenue, including timber, precious metals and gems, and will make clear that whether further measures are imposed will depend entirely on the regime's willingness to allow genuine political progress.

All the signs point to a regime that feels the pressure. These new measures will help to maintain that pressure by focusing on the business interests of the regime rather than the wider population.
True, sanctions against Burma have only worked to drive the regime into close dependence on nations that won't criticize them. And there is ample evidence that sanctions have been largely ineffective.

But sanctions were slapped on Burma without any ongoing follow-up. Now the concerned parties are busy drawing up a new playbook. Miliband and Kouchner observe:
The EU must also offer positive incentives for progress. The EU needs to consider a package of positive measures to the Burmese people should the regime show its willingness to genuinely work for reconciliation. In the meantime, we will continue to provide vital humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people in order to alleviate the suffering of the population.
It is easy to criticize the ASEAN nations for not taking a tougher line on Burma years ago. But they were working from a playbook that is well-worn in the West:
Burma's neighbors are beginning to recognize that unconditional engagement has failed. All that is needed now is for the United States to acknowledge that merely reinforcing its strategy of isolation and the existing sanctions regime will not achieve the desired results either. Such a reappraisal would then allow all concerned parties to build an international consensus with the dual aim of creating new incentives for the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council - the formal name for Burma's junta] to reform and increasing the price it will pay if it fails to change its ways.(1)
Make no mistake; Burma's neighbors have found Burma to be increasingly troublesome:
Burma's neighbors are struggling to respond to the spillover effects of worsening living conditions in the country. The narcotics trade, human trafficking, and HIV/AIDS are all spreading through Southeast Asia thanks in part to Burmese drug traffickers who regularly distribute heroin with HIV-tainted needles in China, India, and Thailand.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Burma accounts for 80 percent of all heroin produced in Southeast Asia, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has drawn a direct connection between the drug routes running from Burma and the marked increase in HIV/AIDS in the border regions of neighboring countries.

Perversely, the SPDC has been playing on its neighbors' concerns over the drugs, disease, and instability that Burma generates to blackmail them into providing it with political, economic, and even military assistance.

Worse, the SPDC appears to have been taking an even more threatening turn recently. Western intelligence officials have suspected for several years that the regime has had an interest in following the model of North Korea and achieving military autarky by developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Last spring, the junta normalized relations and initiated conventional weapons trade with North Korea in violation of UN sanctions against Pyongyang.(1)
So it's been a High Noon situation, with everybody looking at everybody else to make the first move against the junta: the UN, ASEAN, EU, US, China, India, and so on. In the end, it was the Burmese civilians who made the first move.

Last week TIME magazine reported on rumors out of Burma that hundreds of soldiers were arrested because they refused to shoot monks engaged in the protests. That sounds plausible. Now whatever sanity that exists within the military's upper echelon must make itself felt. This time, much of the world will stand by to help.

1) Foreign Affairs, Asia's Forgotten Crisis: A New Approach to Burma
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