Pressuring Myanmar

July 28, 2005

SECRETARY OF State Condoleezza Rice drew some criticism here and abroad for skipping a key meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Laos this week. Her excuse was business in Sudan, but her absence was viewed as showing ASEAN a sign of the consequences if it allows Myanmar to assume its rotating chairmanship next year.

And lo and behold, before that meeting ended, the junta strangling the country once known as Burma blinked, signaling that it would postpone its leadership role. The U.S. hint of disengagement and growing outrage over ASEAN's tolerance of the pariah state made the difference. It was a small victory in the long-running war to free Myanmar from its four decades of military rule but, we hope, a big change in ASEAN's dynamic: Its members, who too long have helped sustain this miserable regime, can work with the West to reform Myanmar.

Of course, Rangoon's generals appear no closer to assenting to what's ultimately needed: freeing Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allowing her party, the National League for Democracy, full political participation. In not taking ASEAN's chair, the junta may just be buying time until a constitutional convention next year erects a faM-gade of democracy.

That means the United States and Europe, which have imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar, need sustained ASEAN pressure on Rangoon. If Western sanctions have not worked, a key reason is that they've been undercut by Myanmar's neighbors. Having rejected Myanmar as its leader, ASEAN now must push more aggressively for democratic reforms there.

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