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Obama Outreach to Burmese Junta Undermines Dissidents

The Senate unanimously confirmed a U.S. special envoy to Burma last week. This is a big policy reversal; the United States has historically avoided high-level diplomatic presence in Myanmar, refusing to engage such a dictatorial regime. The military junta has repeatedly shown it won’t be persuaded to change its ways, regardless of diplomatic engagement. Despite the United States’ good intentions, by honoring Burma with the attention of a senior diplomat, we lend an air of legitimacy to a regime lacking it.

Sending a special envoy makes even less sense in light of the last three years. In 2009, the Obama administration re-evaluated U.S. policy, deciding to devote more aid to Burma and to begin direct, high-level dialogue. Practically, this meant the Obama administration engaged with the junta at a level unprecedented since the 1988 military coup.

The results have not been encouraging. The junta has still gone after dissidents, holding captive an estimated 2,100 political prisoners. It released the most famous, Aung San Suu Kyi, but it has warned her to limit her political activities. The regime even expelled an actress who will portray her in a film. Last November, Burma held its first election in 20 years, but they were rigged and condemned by the international community as a farce. The junta terrorizes not only members of any political opposition but also everyday citizens–raping, torturing and killing them. Human Rights Watch estimated about 500,000 people from eastern Burma are displaced. Many try to flee to other countries, frequently falling into the hands of traffickers. It’s clear the diplomatic effort has done little to address the plight of Burma’s innocents.

The junta hasn’t behaved any better as an international actor. Reports abound suggesting Rangoon is pursuing nuclear weapons. The junta has purportedly sent rice shipments to North Korea. Burma is also a major drug exporter.

Finally, it’s worth noting a senior Burmese envoy to the U.S. defected in July, offering further proof engagement with the junta has been a total failure, yielding nothing productive whatsoever. In a letter pleading for amnesty, the envoy wrote: “Senior military officials are consolidating their grip on power and seeking to stamp out the voices of those seeking democracy, human rights and individual liberties.”

If this is the result of three years of heightened engagement, we shudder to think what the new U.S. envoy will see during his tenure.



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