Saturday, October 13, 2007

Burma and International Relations

First Lady Laura Bush published a Wall Street Journal commentary Wednesday denouncing the Burmese junta's gross human rights violations against the country's pro-democracy forces:

The generals' reign of fear has subdued the protests - for now. But while the streets of Burma may be eerily quiet, the hearts of the Burmese people are not: 2007 is not 1988, when the regime's last major anti-democracy crackdown killed 3,000 and left the junta intact. Today, people everywhere know about the regime's atrocities. They are disgusted by the junta's abuses of human rights. This swelling outrage presents the generals with an urgent choice: Be part of Burma's peaceful transition to democracy, or get out of the way for a government of the Burmese people's choosing.

Whatever last shred of legitimacy the junta had among its own citizens has vanished. The regime's stranglehold on information is slipping; thanks to new technologies, people throughout Burma know about the junta's assaults. The public mood is said to be "a mixture of fear, depression, hopelessness, and seething anger." According to reports from Rangoon, "The regime's heavy-handed tactics against the revered clergy and peaceful demonstrators have turned many of the politically neutral in favor of the recent demonstrators."

Read the whole thing. The First Lady argues that the weight of moral legitimacy rests with the monks, the political opposition, and the people:

The regime's position grows weaker by the day. The generals' choice is clear: The time for a free Burma is now.

For more background on the crisis in Burma, and the global context shaping the international community's push to force democratic change on Burma's authoritarian regime, see "Asia's Forgotten Crisis," from the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs. Here's a snippet:

After General Than Shwe became chair of the junta in 1992, repression grew more brazen. Thousands of democracy activists and ordinary citizens have been sent to prison, and Suu Kyi has been repeatedly confined to house arrest, where she remains today. Since 1996, when the Burmese army launched its "four cuts" strategy against armed rebels -- an effort to cut off their access to food, funds, intelligence, and recruits among the population - 2,500 villages have been destroyed and over one million people, mostly Karen and Shan minorities, have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands live in hiding or in open exile in Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand, and Malaysia. In 2004, the reformist prime minister Khin Nyunt was arrested. Two years ago, Than Shwe even moved the seat of government from Rangoon (which the junta calls Yangon), the traditional capital, to Pyinmana, a small logging town some 250 miles north -- reportedly on the advice of a soothsayer and for fear of possible U.S. air raids. And this past summer, the government cracked down brutally on scores of Burmese citizens who had taken to the streets to protest state-ordered hikes in fuel prices.

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 [State Peace and Development Council] 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. And despite Burma's ample reserves of oil and gas, it signed an agreement with Russia to develop what it says will be peaceful nuclear capabilities. For these reasons, despite urgent problems elsewhere in the world, all responsible members of the international community should be concerned about the course Burma is taking.

The article suggests a change in approach to Burma, shifting to greater engagement with the regime at the highest levels, more forcefully pushing the junta toward political reform and human rights protection, while at the same time toughening the international sanctions regime impelling the junta toward democratic reforms.

But check out the guys at Maggie's Farm, who place the crisis in Burma in the context of Al Gore's Nobel Prize win.