Lost in the shuffle

October 29, 2003

LAST SUMMER -- after Myanmar's military junta murdered an estimated 100 followers of Aung San Suu Kyi and detained the democracy leader for the third time in 14 years -- President Bush signed into law tough sanctions barring all U.S. imports from the country formerly known as Burma. Many other nations similarly acted: Japan suspended new aid, the European Union tightened its sanctions, and even China, a good friend of the Yangon regime, called for the Nobel Laureate's release.

So with the approach of Mr. Bush's trip to Asia last week to attend the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, 35 U.S. senators sent him a letter asking him to put on a "full-court press" to highlight at that gathering Myanmar's repression, and the administration sent out strong advance signals that the president would significantly raise the profile of U.S. concerns.

But once in Bangkok, Mr. Bush unfortunately put on barely a half-court press. Myanmar came up in his bilateral discussions -- most notably with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- but the cause of freedom in Myanmar did not make it on APEC's multilateral agenda as promised, taking a back seat to terrorism, trade and the latest U.S. diplomatic move to counter the North Korean nuclear threat.

This is perhaps understandable given the many challenges that the United States faces across Asia these days. But it's far short of the kind of pressure that must be applied to Myanmar and its regional supporters, particularly Thailand and China, if the 50 million Burmese people are to be freed from oppression.

Myanmar may not pose a presumed nuclear threat, like North Korea. But it presents the case of Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, legally elected in 1990 but barred from power by illegal rulers supported in one way or another by much of the rest of Southeast Asia. When Yangon's generals recently offered a seven-step "roadmap to democracy" -- with no timetable and no reference to including the NLD -- the Association of South East Asian Nations incredibly endorsed the hollow scheme as a "positive development" and criticized U.S. pressure as "not helpful."

This is simply donning blinders. Myanmar is a festering source of regional instability with its widespread use of forced labor and child soldiers and its exports of refugees, narcotics, sex slaves and AIDS. "The facts are self-evident," an outspoken critic of the junta, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor this week. "Burma poses a clear and present danger to itself and to its neighbors."

But U.S. concern over that danger appears to be getting lost in the shuffle. Senator McConnell has been pushing for the United States to make the case for U.N. Security Council sanctions against Myanmar. With such regional powers as Thailand and China reluctant to oppose Yangon, that is the necessary next step.

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