Burma’s Agony Continues

The trial of Nobel laureate and Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi has concluded as expected:  with an extension of her term of house arrest.  The official offense was an unauthorized visit by American John Yettaw, but the regime would have found another excuse had Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years in prison, not made his unexpected appearance.

The Burmese military junta, which styles itself the State Peace and Development Council, is one of the worst governments on earth, having promoted war and prevented development as a matter of state policy.  The regime continues to imprison Ms. Suu Kyi to better enable it to control the elections scheduled next year.  But the poll will be a farce without the participation of Ms. Suu Kyi, who won the last free ballot two decades ago.

The junta also continues its brutal war in the east against ethnic groups, such as the Karen, which have long sought autonomy from the central government.  Millions of people have been displaced within Burma (also called Myanmar) and hundreds of thousands of refugees have been driven across the border into Thailand by the conflict.

America’s options are limited.  The U.S. and European Union already have applied economic sanctions against Burma, including controls targeted against regime elites and cronies.  Unfortunately, China has exhibited no similar scruples, becoming the junta’s strongest backer.  Other nations throughout the region also engage in substantial investment in and trade with Burma.

Any attempt to expand general sanctions is likely to fail and, even if successful, would hurt Burma’s vulnerable population more than regime elites.  Instead, the U.S. and Europe should press India, the ASEAN states, and Japan and South Korea to adopt limited sanctions targeted against junta leaders and their economic allies.  Moreover, Washington should engage Beijing over the issue, indicating that promoting political reform in Burma would enhance its international reputation and claim to global leadership.

Finally, the U.S., along with its Asian and European friends, should offer a positive package of economic and diplomatic benefits should the Burmese junta improve human rights and open Burmese society.  Washington’s expectations should be limited:  the regime is not likely to yield power irrespective of the inducements offered.  However, the junta might decide that the benefits from more limited reform are worth the risks of change.