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>> The International Herald Tribune


PLEAS ON MYANMAR, BUT NO CLEAR VISION

The International Herald Tribune - October 16, 2007 by Seth Mydans Bangkok - A United Nations envoy said here Monday that arrests in Myanmar "must stop at once" and that the international community must do more to curb repression by the ruling junta. The envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, arrived in Bangkok on Sunday to begin a six-country consultation tour of Asia before heading to Myanmar to resume talks with the government that began early this month. "We could do more, not just Thailand," he said. "India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United Nations, we could do more." But it was not clear precisely what more he - or the international community - could do to influence the behavior of a junta that appears not to care what the world thinks. It has isolated itself by choice for the past half century and has managed quite well with the help of a few self-interested friends. After the junta suppressed huge pro-democracy demonstrations by force at the end of last month, the United States announced new sanctions against it, but that action seemed only to underscore the limits of outside influence.For the past decade, pressure on Myanmar has been applied on two contradictory tracks: confrontation through sanctions and a diplomatic cold shoulder by the West; friendly persuasion and engagement by its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Neither approach has worked. The junta that rules Myanmar, in power for two decades, continues to oppress its people and remains immobile, making only small tactical sidesteps when pressured by its critics. Following Gambari's recent visit, the junta announced that its leader, General Than Shwe, would meet with the detained pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, but only if she renounced some of her stated positions. It named a high-level official to act as go-between with her, but no further announcement has emerged. At the same time, the junta has waged a campaign of arrests and terror that Gambari called "extremely disturbing" and "runs counter to the spirit of mutual engagement" with the United Nations. After Thailand, Gambari is to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China and Japan. He said he hoped to travel to Myanmar sooner than his scheduled mid-November date. The sanctions announced by President George W. Bush at the UN last month were only incremental, elaborating on economic restrictions first imposed in 1997 and strengthened in 2003 when Washington banned new American investments in Myanmar. The new steps bar visas for the junta's leaders - most of whom are already covered by a visa ban - and freeze any assets they may have in the United States. "A little bit of window dressing," said Sean Turnell, an expert on the Burmese economy with Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, reflecting the view of a number of analysts. Although sanctions have failed so far, several analysts said they could still be effective if combined with a coordinated international campaign of engagement and diplomatic pressure. But the analysts said such a campaign would require more than routine diplomacy to gain the cooperation of Myanmar's trading partners, none of whom has shown any interest in joining an economic embargo. "The lesson so far is that sanctions alone are not enough," said Michael Green, an expert on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They must be part of a larger strategy, and it's not clear yet that the United States or the international community is prepared to put that effort into the diplomatic side." He added: "There is always the danger that the indignation you see could fade. The junta may have calculated that this is like pulling a scab off. A brief pain, but the world would soon forget." This is the moment for the world to show how seriously it does care about what happens to Myanmar, said Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition, a lobbying group that has shifted from supporting sanctions to supporting engagement. "I don't support sanctions if it's going to turn out to be a lot of hot air," he said. "The question really is, is Burma a value issue or a public relations issue? If it is a value issue, the only condition under which you can claim you believe in it is to prove it by actions." A major problem with sanctions is that Myanmar is a sieve. Investment is flowing in from around its borders, and particularly from China, for which Myanmar is a source of energy and raw materials and a strategic route to the Indian Ocean. "As long as there is an open porthole and the goods could come and the money could go with no restrictions, there just was no value to the sanctions," said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Already China has said it considers the protests in Myanmar an internal affair, and it insisted on muting the language of a United Nations Security Council resolution last week that "strongly deplores" the crackdown. Although China has joined international criticism of the violence, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing told reporters last week: "Sanctions or pressure will not help to solve the issue in Myanmar." India, which has dropped its condemnation of Myanmar in favor of economic competition there with China, sent its strongest signal not through words but through actions. At the height of the protests, India's oil minister traveled to Myanmar to sign a deal to explore for offshore gas. Myanmar's neighbors in Southeast Asia who have been abandoning their policy of "non-interference" in favor of strong words, issued a statement saying they were repulsed and appalled by the use of violence against demonstrators. But none has made a move to cut back on extensive economic ties with Myanmar. Even if all these nations could be persuaded to make economic sacrifices to squeeze the junta, it is not clear how much pain the generals would feel. This is a regime that fears and mistrusts the outside world and is comfortable living in isolation. It is less likely than most nations to be moved by the enticements of aid and investment, analysts said. "We are dealing with a regime that essentially wants to be left alone," said Zarni. "The Burmese regime does not need the West for its survival. If today half the world stops interacting with the Burmese, they will happily go home, closing their embassies behind them."





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