Senator Webb’s visit to Burma has been considered “successful” because he was able to tick three items off his checklist: “rescuing” John Yettaw from seven years in jail with hard labor; meeting Snr-Gen Than Shwe; and meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the eyes of international stakeholders who have gotten accustomed to the Burmese junta’s intransigence, the visit was a coup. This has been the biggest stride forward since former UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail secured Suu Kyi’s release in 2002 and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was able to persuade the generals to accept lucrative aid in 2007.
How ironic. Sen Webb’s “success” stems from the leverage enjoyed by the US’s significant (and effective) sanctions—a ban on imports from Burma and a ban on financial services—that were imposed in 2003 on top of the 1997 ban on new investment.
The US’s previous willingness to “put their money where their mouth is” has gained the respect of the Burmese regime. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has invested millions of dollars over the past decade to woo the US into greater engagement, compared to its cavalier treatment of Asean.
Than Shwe respects power by the extent to which is exercised. He recognizes that the US has traditionally backed its statements with action. Remember Asean’s great achievement of persuading the SPDC to open up to Cyclone Nargis aid? Well, it wouldn’t have been possible without the USS Essex-led carrier group and other foreign navies on standby off the Burmese coast. Than Shwe was given the impression he had to make the choice of cooperating with Asean or deal with the US navy.
The junta has generally responded to the relatively hollow diplomatic overtures made by the UN, EU and Asean with empty promises and bizarre statements, comfortable in the knowledge that these stakeholders are unlikely to hit them where it hurts.
A global arms embargo and a UN Security Council Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma will make this junta sit up and pay attention. It will be the catalyst for a type of engagement that is based on dialogue and negotiation.
While Sen Webb basks in the glory—and I don’t grudge him that—let’s not forget that the essential problems in Burma have not dissipated in any way. Over 2,000 political prisoners, Suu Kyi included, remain imprisoned. The military has stepped up its brutal atrocities in Eastern Burma, terrorizing hundreds of villages with rape, torture, forced labor and death.
Since July 27, over 10,000 civilians have been forcibly displaced from 500 villages in central Shan State. Attacks in Karen State forced over 6,000 civilians to seek refuge in Thailand. Refugees continue to flee their homes every day. This prolongation of one of the world’s longest-running wars is likely to get worse as the regime tightens the screws on ethnic ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups in an effort to completely control the 2010 elections.
Oh, and let’s not forget the chilling evidence of this regime’s chummy cooperation with North Korea: tunnels, long-range ballistic missile technology and a nuclear program.
Sen Webb must seriously consider: if this is the damage the regime can do without access to US resources, what would be possible if sanctions are dismantled willy-nilly?
It’s time to refocus our energies on the original checklist for Burma: the unconditional release of all political prisoners; the cessation of military hostilities in ethnic areas; and a tripartite review of the 2008 constitution.