Sunday, August 16, 2009

Burma, Carrots And Sticks

A US Senator has been in Burma for talks with the country's military leaders. Jim Webb has managed to secure the release of an American citizen who was caught swimming across a lake to the home where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

Suu Kyi has been sentenced to another 18 months under arrest because of the whole bizarre affair, which conveniently means she won't be able to participate in elections planned for next year. She easily won the last elections held in the country almost two decades ago, and has been locked up more or less ever since. But despite international pressure and various sanctions, the military leaders in Burma (they insist on calling it Myanmar) haven't had much trouble hanging on to power, even when challenged by protests as they were in 2007. This is largely because the military regime has the support of China, so isn't that bothered about cosying up to the west for anything.

The continued failure of the west's tactics up to this point give leaders in the US, Britain and elsewhere a dilemma. Try engaging more with the hated military rulers, hoping the carrot of trade and tourism will open the country up, or try using a bigger stick consisting of tougher sanctions and weapons embargoes to force the Burmese to make changes? Although the regime has shown some willingness to be a bit more open, notably last year when allowing international aid agencies into the regions affected by a devastating cyclone, there is no sign that the elections next year will be anything other than a farce.

Western leaders are probably best advised to try to get the Chinese to put pressure on the regime bosses, on the basis that at least they might listen to what Beijing has to say. The Burmese certainly don't listen to the UN, even refusing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon permission to meet Suu Kyi on a recent visit. However, for as long as Burma doesn't become a diplomatic problem for China, by for example trying to build a nuclear bomb like North Korea, it's difficult to see why the Chinese would be particularly interested in trying to bring about a democratic revolution there. That is, after all, what the leaders in Beijing most fear might one day happen in their own country.

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