U.S. Tough Talk on Myanmar Found Hollow

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U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari , left, meets Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, second left.

In this image made from a MRTV, Myanmar's state television company, television broadcast, Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N.'s special envoy, left, meets junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, second left, and other unidentified generals, in the junta's remote new capital, Naypyitaw, Myanmar Oct. 2, 2007. After days of delays, Myanmar's reclusive junta leader granted an audience to U.N. envoy Gambari hoping to broker an end to a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. AP Photo/MRTV hide caption

itoggle caption AP Photo/MRTV

The Bush administration has imposed new sanctions on Myanmar, penalizing the military government. But the tough talk appears to have little influence. Real change may come only with the help of Myanmar's neighbors.

"U.S. policy toward Burma is stuck," said Michael Green, one of the administration's former advisors on Asia.

His blunt comments were part of an article that he co-authored for the publication Foreign Affairs.

Sanctions haven't worked and countries in the region had an entirely different approach — engagement.

What is needed, according to analyst, is a united front, the U.S. working with Myanmar's neighbors.

"That would be very hard for the junta to ignore. It's like an intervention with a crazy drunk at the end of the street," said Green. "When the neighborhood gets together and the junta has no place to go, then it will have to start listening."

China is key, according to Derek Mitchell, the article's other author who, along with Green, works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While Beijing has expressed concern about the current situation, Mitchell said it could do much more because it is so invested in Myanmar – especially in the oil and gas sectors.

China doesn't want to be embarrassed by its support for Myanmar's military junta, just as it doesn't like to be embarrassed by its support for Sudan amid continued killing in Darfur.

"I think there is an opening to engage this and (to Darfur-ize this issue) to try to shine the light on what China is doing," Mitchell said. "If they do it in the shadows, they get away with it. If there is a growing public movement and anger toward China for their irresponsible actions in support of the regime, perhaps you can get them to move a little bit."

Myanmar's military rule provoked wide-scale repugnance with its crackdown last month on democracy advocates who were protesting a hike in fuel prices of as much as 500 percent. Ten lives were claimed in the mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

Many residents reportedly launched a new form of protest on Monday by switching off their lights and turning off television sets from 8 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. during the nightly government newscast.

Another influential player is India, which shares borders with Myanmar, and it too has been oddly silent. But the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has gotten a bit tougher with Myanmar.

Lorne Craner, a former State Department official, said even before the latest crisis, the U.S. urged action on the issue.

"The Asian countries, especially the ASEAN countries — the neighbors — have gone from turning a blind eye to calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi to calling for national reconciliation and to being actively involved in engaging the government," Craner said.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the detained Nobel laureate who has come to symbolize the yearning for democracy in Myanmar.

The Asian countries are also encouraging active involvement on the political front, pushing the regime to open, according to Craner.

But as for America's direct influences on Myanmar, analysts and State Department officials agree, it is limited.

Washington has an embassy but no full ambassador.

Craner said when he was assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor he never traveled there.

"At a certain point, as a mark of disapproval, the U.S. decided that people above a certain rank would not travel to Burma," Craner said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did directly confront officials from Myanmar when she took part in an ASEAN meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. last week.

But Green and Mitchell argue that the U.S. is going to have to relax its ban on high-level contacts with the junta if it is to do the sort of multinational diplomacy that's required.

What they fear is that the U.S. is too bogged down in Iraq, and Washington may be tempted to just talk tough when it comes to Myanmar and let the issue pass while the military rulers hunker down.



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