Lai Seng Sin/AP
A protester holds a placard in support of opposition leader Aung San Syi Kyi during a demonstration in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Wednesday.
A protester holds a placard in support of opposition leader Aung San Syi Kyi during a demonstration in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Wednesday. Lai Seng Sin/AP
The news out of Myanmar that opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Syu Kyi would be spending another 18 months under house detention was met with widespread condemnation around the world. But the question still remains: How can the U.S. and its partners influence the military junta in the country formerly known as Burma?
Reacting to Suu Kyi's trial was the easy part for State Department spokesman PJ Crowley.
"We are deeply concerned about the convictions on spurious charges of Aung San Suu Kyi and John Yettaw," he said.
Yettaw is the American who swam uninvited to Suu Kyi's lakeside compound in a bizarre incident that started this latest legal ordeal. Suu Kyi was blamed for violating her house arrest by letting him in. Crowley says, in effect, she was convicted of being polite.
"This is a thinly veiled effort by the Burmese government to keep her on the sidelines for elections next year," he said. "As the secretary [Hillary Clinton] said, unless she is released from house arrest, along with more than 2,000 other political prisoners, those elections will have absolutely no legitimacy."
Finding a way to promote legitimate elections and any other change in Myanmar is proving to be difficult for U.S. policymakers.
At the start of her term as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton made clear that economic sanctions haven't worked. Just last month, she was holding out the possibility that the U.S. could expand its relationship with Myanmar and allow U.S. investments in the country. But Clinton told NPR that she is committed to getting Suu Kyi released first.
"There is an opportunity for them, but it really hinges on what they do with Aung San Syu Kyi," she said.
The U.S. policy review was too focused on Suu Kyi's case, says Michael Green, who served on President Bush's National Security Council and had to wrestle with the issue of Myanmar during his government tenure. Green says it will take a big diplomatic push to convince countries in the region to get tough with Myanmar — with clear carrots and sticks.
"You've got to get every country in the region working together, sort of like a neighborhood watch dealing with the one crazy, difficult neighbor at the end of the block who everyone is afraid of and no one ever gets together to deal with," he says.
Getting China, India To Act
Green, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the Obama administration is starting to move in the right direction, building up influence with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But, he says, it is going to be challenging to get China and India on board for any effective sanctions.
"Left to their own devices, the Chinese will push for access to natural gas and other resources in Burma and then the Indians will compete with them," he says. "And so the junta plays these big neighbors off against each other."
China, in particular, is key, says Jeremy Woodrum, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"China needs to be part of this equation," Woodrum says. "They are key supporter of the military regime. They've given the regime a lot of weapons over the years and provided them diplomatic cover.
"And so what we'd like to see is the U.S., U.K. and France propose a global arms embargo on the military regime at the U.N. Security Council, where China is a member, and draw out China on this issue."
Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said the U.S. is considering the idea of an arms embargo, but the U.S. policy review is still under way.
Seeking U.N. Action
Woodrum says the Obama administration should also consider calling for a commission of inquiry at the U.N. to see whether Myanmar's military authorities are committing crimes against humanity in their offensive against ethnic rebel groups in the country.
"Suu Kyi's case grabs the headlines, but the regime has destroyed as many villages as in Darfur — its just a human rights disaster," he says.
Woodrum says the U.S. has not spoken out forcefully enough about the fighting that has forced thousands of civilians from ethnic minority groups to flee Myanmar this year alone.