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No Longer the Generals' Burma

By Tom Malinowski, The Washington Post, October 21, 2007

Washington, USA -- In 1988, the people of Burma launched a nonviolent struggle for democracy and were met with gunfire. I was working for Sen. Pat Moynihan, about the only prominent American to notice then what was happening in that isolated country.

<< General Tan Shwe, ruler of the brutal Burmese military junta

One day, after the Senate passed its first-ever resolution on Burma, a photo arrived in our office showing a column of Burmese marching with a banner reading: "Thank you Senator Moynihan." We were proud but profoundly sad. We knew that our meager words could not keep those brave people from being killed or their movement from being crushed.

Today, Burma's military dictators have again met demands for human rights, this time from Buddhist monks, with force. Some believe that another Burmese Spring has been extinguished, and that we can do little to help. I disagree. The most recent peaceful uprising reflects fundamental changes within Burma and the wider world. Its implications won't be felt for some time but can be guided by the right international response.

We should have no illusions about what is going on in Burma. Soldiers are hunting down leaders of the protest movement and torturing them. Revered Buddhist monasteries are being occupied; the monks are being defrocked, beaten and sometimes killed. Government newspapers demand unity against "neo-colonialist stooges" and "killers in the airwaves" -- the Western radio stations that Burmese depend on for news. People are afraid.

But the government also has reason to worry. By attacking monasteries, it has created a problem it cannot solve: These sacred spaces cannot be shut forever (any more than Poland's communist government could have closed its Catholic churches); when they reopen, dissent will reemerge. Through the Internet, Burma's dissidents are more connected to each other and the world than ever before. The leadership is more disconnected from its people, and from reality, holed up in a bizarre new capital in the jungle.

Meanwhile, Burma's neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations no longer stand by the generals; they have expressed "revulsion" over the violence. The U.N. Security Council, where China vetoed a resolution on Burma nine months ago, has demanded, with China's consent, that Burma release political prisoners. It has sent an envoy to mediate the only solution that appears realistic -- a negotiated political transition in which the military saves some of its status and face.

What will induce Burma's generals to listen? Sanctions -- imposed by only a few countries -- have not convinced them before. Skeptics point out that if Western oil companies leave Burma, Asian companies will vie to take their place. If the United States and Europe stop buying Burmese gems and hardwood, others will fill the gap. Yet the generals are vulnerable. Whether they get rich from gas, gems, timber or narcotics deals, the revenue is usually deposited in hard currency (since Burmese cash is worthless) in accounts in such places as Singapore and Dubai. That cash generally can't be used internationally without passing through the U.S. or European banking system, where it can be blocked, as President Bush announced Friday that the administration would try to do. America and Europe can persuade, or compel, the banks themselves to freeze the junta's accounts.

Diplomats and foreign policy experts sometimes discount sanctions because -- like most of us -- they don't understand the arcane world of global finance. But targeted financial sanctions have become highly sophisticated. For example, decades of generalized trade restrictions against North Korea had little impact -- but when the United States, acting alone, caused one foreign bank to freeze one account belonging to North Korea's leaders, Kim Jong Il came to the nuclear negotiating table pretty fast. Even hermit kings can't afford to have their credit cards frozen, as Burma's rulers may soon learn.

The alternative some suggest is to flood Burma with aid to raise living standards. But Burma's rulers are not like those in South Korea, where growing prosperity contributed to political opening -- they have deliberately neglected the country's schools and health care. They have squashed private initiative while building a system that works splendidly for them: No one can prosper without their permission. Outside aid might help some Burmese survive. But to think it can bring prosperity (much less spur political change) is naive.

There is one problem with smart sanctions: The only policy that can work with Burma requires sustained attention that no administration has yet been willing to provide. Senior people in Washington will have to work seven days a week tracking Burmese money around the world while simultaneously managing complex, multiparty diplomacy.

But here is something else that is new: The American president cares about Burma and is energizing his administration to act. And he should: Burma is one place where America remains largely admired; where the administration doesn't have to choose between the best of bad options; where it can still leave a legacy of nurturing democracy. Those who mistrust -- legitimately -- Bush's approach to the world should not be cynical about his efforts on Burma or the possibility of success if other nations do their part.

The main obstacle to a successful Burma policy is the belief that we are as powerless today as we were 20 years ago. Let the generals hiding in their jungle fortress believe that nothing in the world has changed. And let us prove them wrong.

The writer is Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

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