Commentary Magazine


Topic: Myanmar

Good News and Bad News in Burma

Burma may very well play an outsized role in the success or failure of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia–the White House’s attempt to undo some of the damage it did earlier in its administration in places like India, South Korea, and Burma. Burma was an exception because unlike the others, it was not an ally and was oppressing its citizenry, so it obviously required a different approach.

The administration wisely recognized that Burma’s location, combined with the shifting of global economic focus eastward, gives the country a strategic relevance it has not had since World War II. Though it’s been ruled by a vicious military junta, new leader Thein Sein has begun a process of liberalization in return for the restoration of diplomatic ties to the United States–a step we took–along with the request that we relax economic sanctions, which is under consideration. In the last week, the administration received some good news and some bad news out of Burma. First, the bad news:

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Burma may very well play an outsized role in the success or failure of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia–the White House’s attempt to undo some of the damage it did earlier in its administration in places like India, South Korea, and Burma. Burma was an exception because unlike the others, it was not an ally and was oppressing its citizenry, so it obviously required a different approach.

The administration wisely recognized that Burma’s location, combined with the shifting of global economic focus eastward, gives the country a strategic relevance it has not had since World War II. Though it’s been ruled by a vicious military junta, new leader Thein Sein has begun a process of liberalization in return for the restoration of diplomatic ties to the United States–a step we took–along with the request that we relax economic sanctions, which is under consideration. In the last week, the administration received some good news and some bad news out of Burma. First, the bad news:

A prominent Burmese monk who was freed last month as part of a mass release of political prisoners was briefly detained again on Friday in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that tracks the plight of dissidents and democracy advocates in the country.

The monk, Ashin Gambira, was one of the organizers of the 2007 uprising against the military government that ruled Myanmar at the time. His arrest on Friday, after four weeks of freedom, appeared to demonstrate the limits of tolerance under Myanmar’s new civilian government.

[…]

Fighting continues between ethnic Kachin rebels and government troops in northern Myanmar, a longstanding conflict that was reignited last year and has resulted in a wave of refugees across the border into China. Separately, a cease-fire agreement signed last month with the Karen ethnic group appears to be fraying, with some Karen leaders denying that there even is an agreement.

Some of this was inevitable, and the clashes with upland peoples and minority groups are not necessarily proof that Burma’s rulers are unwilling to rein in the military. But it’s also important for the West to ensure that Burma’s leaders haven’t pulled a bait-and-switch scheme by releasing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Burmese dissident most people have heard of, while imprisoning those who have not had the opportunity to pose for photo ops with American officials.

Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made historic visits to Burma in recent months, and both were careful to stress that the challenges in Burma going forward are just as great as the opportunities. And on that front, the good news:

As Myanmar pursues dramatic reforms, its relationship with China — the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest investor and second-biggest trade partner — is changing. In some cases, long-festering resentment is flaring into the open.

During decades of isolation, the former Burma relied on China as its closest diplomatic and military ally. Wide-reaching Western sanctions put in place after a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 forced Myanmar to deepen economic ties with China.

But as Myanmar embarks on the road back to democracy, a once-muffled debate about China’s role is growing louder. The reforms are also taking place as the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China has sharpened since the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia after preoccupation with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the past decade.

This is encouraging for the administration because it identifies–correctly–a desire among the Burmese population to look west. China has taken advantage of the lack of Western involvement in Burmese commerce by using parts of Burma accessible to China–which happens to include Burma’s former capital, Mandalay–as a backyard. In “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia,” Thant Myint-U writes of returning to Burma to find that his parents’ countrymen (he was born in New York City but his parents are native Burmese) had not been lifted out of poverty, but Chinese immigrants and businessmen didn’t seem to be living in the same grim economic reality.

He tells of seeing a brightly lit cell phone store in Mandalay filled with Chinese customers while a Burmese woman was bathing in an outdoor well nearby, among a pack of stray dogs:

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with what the Chinese were doing. But the Chinese were entering a vacuum, and this once proud capital of a little kingdom, and later a city of British India, was being transformed into an outpost of the world’s biggest industrial revolution. They were helping create an unequal society. It wasn’t clear at all what the consequences might be.

There can be no doubt China understands grand strategy and Burma’s role in a new great game. But they are not at all concerned about the Burmese people, or the country itself. India is, and the U.S. should be as well. Smart American policy toward Burma–which seems to be what Clinton is carrying out, with McConnell’s support–can hopefully tip the scales in the right direction.

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Burma Election Farce

Burma is yet another example of the Obama team’s failed strategy of engaging totalitarian regimes. We were going to lessen Burma’s isolation and see if we could lure them back into the “international community.” This, like the elections there on Sunday, has proved to be a farce. This report explains:

Frustration over Sunday’s national election in Myanmar is rising as evidence mounts that government-backed candidates dominated the polls amid reports of voting irregularities.

Myanmar’s secretive military regime has only slowly released official results. As of Thursday, the government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party had won 140 of the 182 contested parliamentary seats whose outcome was reported by election officials. Prime Minister Thein Sein and other prominent members of the ruling junta were among the winners. …

“We knew it was going to be bad, but not this bad,” said one Yangon resident, a travel-company owner who said he opposes the military regime.

Several opposition groups, including the party of famed pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, which was disbanded by the government earlier this year, have said they believe there may have been widespread fraud, and are considering raising more-formal complaints.

Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, and with tempers rising, it is unclear whether the government will release her.

So what does this say of the Obama policy? For two years the White House essentially gave Burma a free pass. Now the administration is very upset to find fraud going on there. But would the government have shown more restraint had we tightened, rather than loosened, the screws and had we made clear the consequences of government-authorized thuggery? We don’t know, but certainly we would have preserved our moral standing and given support to those struggling under the thumb of the despotic government. Maybe now we’ll finally cast aside “engagement” — along with Keynesian economics and a host of other bad policies and faulty assumptions championed by the administration.

Burma is yet another example of the Obama team’s failed strategy of engaging totalitarian regimes. We were going to lessen Burma’s isolation and see if we could lure them back into the “international community.” This, like the elections there on Sunday, has proved to be a farce. This report explains:

Frustration over Sunday’s national election in Myanmar is rising as evidence mounts that government-backed candidates dominated the polls amid reports of voting irregularities.

Myanmar’s secretive military regime has only slowly released official results. As of Thursday, the government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party had won 140 of the 182 contested parliamentary seats whose outcome was reported by election officials. Prime Minister Thein Sein and other prominent members of the ruling junta were among the winners. …

“We knew it was going to be bad, but not this bad,” said one Yangon resident, a travel-company owner who said he opposes the military regime.

Several opposition groups, including the party of famed pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, which was disbanded by the government earlier this year, have said they believe there may have been widespread fraud, and are considering raising more-formal complaints.

Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, and with tempers rising, it is unclear whether the government will release her.

So what does this say of the Obama policy? For two years the White House essentially gave Burma a free pass. Now the administration is very upset to find fraud going on there. But would the government have shown more restraint had we tightened, rather than loosened, the screws and had we made clear the consequences of government-authorized thuggery? We don’t know, but certainly we would have preserved our moral standing and given support to those struggling under the thumb of the despotic government. Maybe now we’ll finally cast aside “engagement” — along with Keynesian economics and a host of other bad policies and faulty assumptions championed by the administration.

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Can We Move Past Engagement?

By now the pattern is clear. The Obama team declares that the policy of George W. Bush toward [fill in the blank with the name of a despotic regime] was “shortsighted” and failed to appreciate that only by engagement and discussion can we discern what [name of despotic regime] really wants. Now we send a special envoy, offer talks, decline to discuss human rights with any vigor, and ease up on sanctions. And lo and behold, the regime gets worse. Curious, isn’t it, that unilateral gestures and reticence to assert American values doesn’t pay off?

This report details the latest example:

The United States is deeply disappointed by Myanmar’s preparations for rare elections and wants “immediate steps” to address fears they will lack legitimacy, a top US diplomat said Monday.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell issued his strongly-worded statement after meeting government officials and opposition leaders including detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

“What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy,” Campbell said of the junta‘s plans to stage a vote later this year that would be the first in two decades.

“We urge the regime to take immediate steps to open the process in the time remaining before the elections,” he said.

US President Barack Obama‘s administration launched dialogue with Myanmar‘s military rulers last year after concluding that Western attempts to isolate the regime had produced little success.

Campbell says the U.S. is “profoundly disappointed” — which might be more than “deeply concerned” but certainly less than the condemnation issued to Israel on building in its own capital. What do the human-rights advocates have to say?

Suu Kyi did not speak to reporters but Win Tin, a former political prisoner and senior NLD member, said other top opposition figures had called on Washington to put more pressure on the junta in separate talks with Campbell.

“We think the approach of the US is very soft in relation to this military government,” Win Tin said.

“We asked for tougher political or economic action. There is no position to begin credible elections as the world asks,” he told reporters. “We reiterated (our request) not to acknowledge the coming result of the election.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling for tough sanctions. That seems to be a wise course, and not only for Burma. Obama has had his “experiment” in engagement. It has proved a failure everywhere it has been tried. Can we move on?

By now the pattern is clear. The Obama team declares that the policy of George W. Bush toward [fill in the blank with the name of a despotic regime] was “shortsighted” and failed to appreciate that only by engagement and discussion can we discern what [name of despotic regime] really wants. Now we send a special envoy, offer talks, decline to discuss human rights with any vigor, and ease up on sanctions. And lo and behold, the regime gets worse. Curious, isn’t it, that unilateral gestures and reticence to assert American values doesn’t pay off?

This report details the latest example:

The United States is deeply disappointed by Myanmar’s preparations for rare elections and wants “immediate steps” to address fears they will lack legitimacy, a top US diplomat said Monday.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell issued his strongly-worded statement after meeting government officials and opposition leaders including detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

“What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy,” Campbell said of the junta‘s plans to stage a vote later this year that would be the first in two decades.

“We urge the regime to take immediate steps to open the process in the time remaining before the elections,” he said.

US President Barack Obama‘s administration launched dialogue with Myanmar‘s military rulers last year after concluding that Western attempts to isolate the regime had produced little success.

Campbell says the U.S. is “profoundly disappointed” — which might be more than “deeply concerned” but certainly less than the condemnation issued to Israel on building in its own capital. What do the human-rights advocates have to say?

Suu Kyi did not speak to reporters but Win Tin, a former political prisoner and senior NLD member, said other top opposition figures had called on Washington to put more pressure on the junta in separate talks with Campbell.

“We think the approach of the US is very soft in relation to this military government,” Win Tin said.

“We asked for tougher political or economic action. There is no position to begin credible elections as the world asks,” he told reporters. “We reiterated (our request) not to acknowledge the coming result of the election.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling for tough sanctions. That seems to be a wise course, and not only for Burma. Obama has had his “experiment” in engagement. It has proved a failure everywhere it has been tried. Can we move on?

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Consistently Rotten Results

You have to give the Obami credit. They have doggedly applied their engagement tactic to a variety of regimes — and gotten remarkably similar results. It so happens that the result has been to embolden our adversaries. In response to our efforts to ingratiate ourselves with the mullahs and pipe down about democracy, we have been scorned and snubbed. In response to our decision to redeploy our ambassador to Syria, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran and joined in the pummeling of the U.S. In response to our suck-uppery, the Chinese have become ever bolder, continuing their opposition to sanctions and their despotic treatment of dissidents. The same is true, we now learn, of Burma.

This report explains:

The Obama administration, concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea, has launched an aggressive campaign to persuade Burma’s junta to stop buying North Korean military technology, U.S. officials said.

Concerns about the relationship — which encompass the sale of small arms, missile components and technology possibly related to nuclear weapons — in part prompted the Obama administration in October to end the George W. Bush-era policy of isolating the military junta, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But we’ve been having meetings with them and engaging them! Some now fret that this is getting us nowhere:

Congress and human rights organizations are increasingly criticizing and questioning the administration’s new policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Myanmar. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and generally a supporter of the administration’s foreign policy, recently called for the administration to increase the pressure on Burma, including tightening sanctions on the regime.

“Recent events have raised the profile of humanitarian issues there,” Berman said Friday. “Support is growing for more action in addition to ongoing efforts.”

There is good reason to conclude that things are moving in the wrong direction. (“On Feb. 10, a Burmese court sentenced a naturalized Burmese American political activist from Montgomery County to three years of hard labor; he was allegedly beaten, denied food and water, and placed in isolation in a tiny cell with no toilet. Burma recently snubbed the United Nations’ special envoy on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, denying him a meeting with Suu Kyi and access to Burma’s senior leadership.”) As one expert succinctly put it, “The bad behavior has increased.”

This will no doubt disappoint Sen. Jim Webb, who has been leading the charge to lessen Burma’s “isolation.” As the report notes, “Webb’s trip to Burma in August — the first by a member of Congress in a decade — has been credited with giving the Obama administration the political cover to open up talks with the junta.” Credited, indeed.

The Obami conclude from all of this that they must redouble their efforts — engage more! They seem never to learn from experience — never to examine the motives and conduct of our foes as a means of assessing whether our policies are working. For a group that declared ideology to be “so yesterday,” they seem to be trapped in the the grips of their own. They are convinced that despotic regimes will respond to unilateral gestures and American obsequiousness. Repeated failure seems not to impact their analysis. Too bad there aren’t any realists to be found.

You have to give the Obami credit. They have doggedly applied their engagement tactic to a variety of regimes — and gotten remarkably similar results. It so happens that the result has been to embolden our adversaries. In response to our efforts to ingratiate ourselves with the mullahs and pipe down about democracy, we have been scorned and snubbed. In response to our decision to redeploy our ambassador to Syria, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran and joined in the pummeling of the U.S. In response to our suck-uppery, the Chinese have become ever bolder, continuing their opposition to sanctions and their despotic treatment of dissidents. The same is true, we now learn, of Burma.

This report explains:

The Obama administration, concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea, has launched an aggressive campaign to persuade Burma’s junta to stop buying North Korean military technology, U.S. officials said.

Concerns about the relationship — which encompass the sale of small arms, missile components and technology possibly related to nuclear weapons — in part prompted the Obama administration in October to end the George W. Bush-era policy of isolating the military junta, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But we’ve been having meetings with them and engaging them! Some now fret that this is getting us nowhere:

Congress and human rights organizations are increasingly criticizing and questioning the administration’s new policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Myanmar. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and generally a supporter of the administration’s foreign policy, recently called for the administration to increase the pressure on Burma, including tightening sanctions on the regime.

“Recent events have raised the profile of humanitarian issues there,” Berman said Friday. “Support is growing for more action in addition to ongoing efforts.”

There is good reason to conclude that things are moving in the wrong direction. (“On Feb. 10, a Burmese court sentenced a naturalized Burmese American political activist from Montgomery County to three years of hard labor; he was allegedly beaten, denied food and water, and placed in isolation in a tiny cell with no toilet. Burma recently snubbed the United Nations’ special envoy on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, denying him a meeting with Suu Kyi and access to Burma’s senior leadership.”) As one expert succinctly put it, “The bad behavior has increased.”

This will no doubt disappoint Sen. Jim Webb, who has been leading the charge to lessen Burma’s “isolation.” As the report notes, “Webb’s trip to Burma in August — the first by a member of Congress in a decade — has been credited with giving the Obama administration the political cover to open up talks with the junta.” Credited, indeed.

The Obami conclude from all of this that they must redouble their efforts — engage more! They seem never to learn from experience — never to examine the motives and conduct of our foes as a means of assessing whether our policies are working. For a group that declared ideology to be “so yesterday,” they seem to be trapped in the the grips of their own. They are convinced that despotic regimes will respond to unilateral gestures and American obsequiousness. Repeated failure seems not to impact their analysis. Too bad there aren’t any realists to be found.

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What’s It Getting Us?

Mike Allen, who pouted over the weekend that readers were complaining about the lack of coverage of the “bow,” now seems to get it:

Greeting the Japanese emperor at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace last weekend, President Barack Obama bowed so low that he was looking straight at the stone floor. The next day, Obama shook hands with the prime minister of repressive Myanmar during a group meeting. The day after that, the president held a “town hall” with Chinese university students who had been selected by the regime.

The images from the president’s journey through Asia carried a potent symbolism that has riled critics back home. One conservative website called the episodes “Obamateurism.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney told POLITICO that Obama was advertising “weakness.”

But the Obami love all this. It is showing “modesty about our attitudes toward other countries,” our president tells us. No, it is submissiveness, not modesty. But modesty would be a good thing — for example, not telling Honduras what its constitution means and not bullying Israel on where Jews can live would be vast improvements. Allen tells us that Obama doesn’t like all those “bald assertions of American self-interest.” Yes, it’s a head scratcher because the American president is supposed to be doing everything in his power to advance American interests. Isn’t he? I thought that was in the job description.

Ah, but it’s all so clever. He really wants what is good for us, he’s just going to pretend he doesn’t all that much, thereby getting everyone to co-operate with us. The way to do this is by bowing, figuratively and literally, and showing we are in effect not only no better than others, but less deserving. (That’s the meaning of the low bow — the other guy has higher status.) Cheney explains: “There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone. Our friends and allies don’t expect it, and our enemies see it as a sign of weakness.” What a quaint idea — that the president does not scrape before foreign leaders.

But is it working? The plan is to appear meek and mild and lure other countries into giving us stuff. But alas, it’s been a bust:

The pageantry of his trip is also playing out against a parade of disappointment: Administration officials have acknowledged that a binding international climate agreement won’t emerge from the Copenhagen summit next month. An arms-reduction treaty with Russia is going to expire Dec. 5 without a new one in place, forcing the parties to scramble to sign an interim “bridging agreement.” And Iran and North Korea have yet to deliver on Obama’s promise that U.S. engagement will yield better behavior.

And we’ve not exactly bowled them over in the Middle East or gotten anything from Russia.

You’d think Obama, who wanted “smart” diplomacy and new “pragmatism” (determined to “leave ideology behind”) would take a look around and see what his team has accomplished: nothing. If they have no innate aversion, no skin-crawling reaction to the suck-uppery, perhaps the Obama team will at least recognize that it’s all been a failure. Then they can fire some people and start over. Unfortunately, that photo of the bow is forever.

Mike Allen, who pouted over the weekend that readers were complaining about the lack of coverage of the “bow,” now seems to get it:

Greeting the Japanese emperor at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace last weekend, President Barack Obama bowed so low that he was looking straight at the stone floor. The next day, Obama shook hands with the prime minister of repressive Myanmar during a group meeting. The day after that, the president held a “town hall” with Chinese university students who had been selected by the regime.

The images from the president’s journey through Asia carried a potent symbolism that has riled critics back home. One conservative website called the episodes “Obamateurism.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney told POLITICO that Obama was advertising “weakness.”

But the Obami love all this. It is showing “modesty about our attitudes toward other countries,” our president tells us. No, it is submissiveness, not modesty. But modesty would be a good thing — for example, not telling Honduras what its constitution means and not bullying Israel on where Jews can live would be vast improvements. Allen tells us that Obama doesn’t like all those “bald assertions of American self-interest.” Yes, it’s a head scratcher because the American president is supposed to be doing everything in his power to advance American interests. Isn’t he? I thought that was in the job description.

Ah, but it’s all so clever. He really wants what is good for us, he’s just going to pretend he doesn’t all that much, thereby getting everyone to co-operate with us. The way to do this is by bowing, figuratively and literally, and showing we are in effect not only no better than others, but less deserving. (That’s the meaning of the low bow — the other guy has higher status.) Cheney explains: “There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone. Our friends and allies don’t expect it, and our enemies see it as a sign of weakness.” What a quaint idea — that the president does not scrape before foreign leaders.

But is it working? The plan is to appear meek and mild and lure other countries into giving us stuff. But alas, it’s been a bust:

The pageantry of his trip is also playing out against a parade of disappointment: Administration officials have acknowledged that a binding international climate agreement won’t emerge from the Copenhagen summit next month. An arms-reduction treaty with Russia is going to expire Dec. 5 without a new one in place, forcing the parties to scramble to sign an interim “bridging agreement.” And Iran and North Korea have yet to deliver on Obama’s promise that U.S. engagement will yield better behavior.

And we’ve not exactly bowled them over in the Middle East or gotten anything from Russia.

You’d think Obama, who wanted “smart” diplomacy and new “pragmatism” (determined to “leave ideology behind”) would take a look around and see what his team has accomplished: nothing. If they have no innate aversion, no skin-crawling reaction to the suck-uppery, perhaps the Obama team will at least recognize that it’s all been a failure. Then they can fire some people and start over. Unfortunately, that photo of the bow is forever.

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Burma Outreach

How’s our Burma outreach going? Well, not so well. Frankly, we aren’t even effectively reaching out to our allies on the subject. As this report explains, Obama, in his meetings with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein and other Southeast Asian leaders, called for the release of Nobel Prize–winning democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He didn’t do anything more, however, and the pro-democracy advocates are noticing:

Mr. Obama failed to secure any mention of political prisoners in a communique issued by the meeting’s participants afterward. That failure disappointed dissidents who were hoping the president’s involvement would encourage Southeast Asian leaders to take a harder line on Myanmar’s junta, which is accused of widespread human-rights abuses but remains a trading partner with much of the region.

The failure to single out Ms. Suu Kyi was “another blow” to dissidents who want more pressure on the regime, said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based organization. “We keep saying again and again that the U.S. should not send a mixed signal to the regime.”

For all his powers of persuasion, he seemed unable — or was it unwilling — to round up support for Suu Kyi’s releases. But we are told that “U.S. officials had taken pains to reduce expectations for the meeting, which occurred between sessions at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and was part of a new initiative by the Obama administration to increase interaction with the Myanmar government.” Well, the “new initiative” sort of raised the expectations, didn’t it? The Obami seem confused once again. The Obami seem confused once again. They are contemplating a “new initiative” to be launched on Burma, and promising that “engagement” offers a more productive way forward. But they don’t quite grasp that when there’s no result to all this, because the Burma regime is impervious to “engagement,” then the Obama effort will look like a failure. That is how things usually work; the apparent denseness of the Obama team after months and months on the job is not heartening.

And meanwhile, “criticism from dissidents will likely intensify if results aren’t seen soon, increasing the pressure on U.S. officials to show progress or walk away. ‘I think there is a need for some gestures now’ from the Myanmar side, or the U.S. might have to scale back its re-engagement with the regime, said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Australia. He called the meeting ‘very disappointing’ because of the failure of Southeast Asian nations to follow Mr. Obama’s lead and press for Ms. Suu Kyi’s release.” Disappointing indeed. But hardly surprising to anyone other than the Obami.

How’s our Burma outreach going? Well, not so well. Frankly, we aren’t even effectively reaching out to our allies on the subject. As this report explains, Obama, in his meetings with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein and other Southeast Asian leaders, called for the release of Nobel Prize–winning democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He didn’t do anything more, however, and the pro-democracy advocates are noticing:

Mr. Obama failed to secure any mention of political prisoners in a communique issued by the meeting’s participants afterward. That failure disappointed dissidents who were hoping the president’s involvement would encourage Southeast Asian leaders to take a harder line on Myanmar’s junta, which is accused of widespread human-rights abuses but remains a trading partner with much of the region.

The failure to single out Ms. Suu Kyi was “another blow” to dissidents who want more pressure on the regime, said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based organization. “We keep saying again and again that the U.S. should not send a mixed signal to the regime.”

For all his powers of persuasion, he seemed unable — or was it unwilling — to round up support for Suu Kyi’s releases. But we are told that “U.S. officials had taken pains to reduce expectations for the meeting, which occurred between sessions at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and was part of a new initiative by the Obama administration to increase interaction with the Myanmar government.” Well, the “new initiative” sort of raised the expectations, didn’t it? The Obami seem confused once again. The Obami seem confused once again. They are contemplating a “new initiative” to be launched on Burma, and promising that “engagement” offers a more productive way forward. But they don’t quite grasp that when there’s no result to all this, because the Burma regime is impervious to “engagement,” then the Obama effort will look like a failure. That is how things usually work; the apparent denseness of the Obama team after months and months on the job is not heartening.

And meanwhile, “criticism from dissidents will likely intensify if results aren’t seen soon, increasing the pressure on U.S. officials to show progress or walk away. ‘I think there is a need for some gestures now’ from the Myanmar side, or the U.S. might have to scale back its re-engagement with the regime, said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Australia. He called the meeting ‘very disappointing’ because of the failure of Southeast Asian nations to follow Mr. Obama’s lead and press for Ms. Suu Kyi’s release.” Disappointing indeed. But hardly surprising to anyone other than the Obami.

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Time to Invade Burma?

Today, the United Nations World Food Program suspended the shipment of relief supplies to Burma, also known as Myanmar. The country had been ravaged by Cyclone Nargis on Saturday.

The suspension was prompted by the Burmese junta’s seizure of supplies that the agency had already sent. “All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” said the UN’s Paul Risley. “For the time being, we have no choice but to end further efforts to bring critical needed food aid into Myanmar at this time.”

Previously, the government blocked almost all disaster assistance offered by the international community, including the United States. According to official statistics, almost 23,000 have died. Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon, says the toll may have already exceeded 100,000.

The UN says the flights will resume tomorrow, but we do not know whether they will in fact be allowed to land. Yet at this moment we are sure of this: Burmese are dying only because their government, which insists on handling disaster assistance itself, has proven utterly incapable of doing so. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, has therefore raised the possibility that the United Nations invoke its “responsibility to protect” and deliver aid to Burmese citizens without their government’s permission. Such an action would save lives, but it probably would trigger conflict with the militant regime. So the issue arises: Is the world willing to invade Burma?

Invade? The international community cannot “protect” the Burmese people from a military government without employing military means. The United Nations, of course, is not prepared to use force. So Burmese by the tens of thousands will perish.

Of course, there are good reasons not to start a war against the junta this week. There are, for instance, tens of millions of other people who urgently need to be shielded from the tyrants who threaten their lives, and we cannot forcibly help all of them now. Yet even if the international community had the capability to do so, I doubt it is ready for dozens of simultaneous “interventions.” It’s not ready for even one. How do I know that? The United States undertook an obligation to protect the people of Iraq from the murderous Saddam Hussein. And we can see what the rest of the world now thinks of that.

Today, the United Nations World Food Program suspended the shipment of relief supplies to Burma, also known as Myanmar. The country had been ravaged by Cyclone Nargis on Saturday.

The suspension was prompted by the Burmese junta’s seizure of supplies that the agency had already sent. “All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” said the UN’s Paul Risley. “For the time being, we have no choice but to end further efforts to bring critical needed food aid into Myanmar at this time.”

Previously, the government blocked almost all disaster assistance offered by the international community, including the United States. According to official statistics, almost 23,000 have died. Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon, says the toll may have already exceeded 100,000.

The UN says the flights will resume tomorrow, but we do not know whether they will in fact be allowed to land. Yet at this moment we are sure of this: Burmese are dying only because their government, which insists on handling disaster assistance itself, has proven utterly incapable of doing so. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, has therefore raised the possibility that the United Nations invoke its “responsibility to protect” and deliver aid to Burmese citizens without their government’s permission. Such an action would save lives, but it probably would trigger conflict with the militant regime. So the issue arises: Is the world willing to invade Burma?

Invade? The international community cannot “protect” the Burmese people from a military government without employing military means. The United Nations, of course, is not prepared to use force. So Burmese by the tens of thousands will perish.

Of course, there are good reasons not to start a war against the junta this week. There are, for instance, tens of millions of other people who urgently need to be shielded from the tyrants who threaten their lives, and we cannot forcibly help all of them now. Yet even if the international community had the capability to do so, I doubt it is ready for dozens of simultaneous “interventions.” It’s not ready for even one. How do I know that? The United States undertook an obligation to protect the people of Iraq from the murderous Saddam Hussein. And we can see what the rest of the world now thinks of that.

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The Price of UN Membership

As noted yesterday on contentions, Libya was elected on October 16, 2007 to the UN Security Council, a position it will assume in January. Last month Syria was elected Vice-Chair of the General Conference of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. These goings-on at the UN have been presented not only as perfectly normal but as laudable. While they have provoked strong reaction in some people, they should not come as a surprise.

The UN, we are told, is an essential institution because of its unique inclusivity. The argument goes that the goals and values of democracies on the world scene are dependent on their doing business with dictators as equals. One state, one vote. Regardless of the numbers of real people being subdued in various ways back home. Regardless of the financial contribution made by each member state to the world organization. Regardless of the extent to which the founding principles and purposes of the UN are flaunted by the member state every day of the week.

So Libya and Syria join a long list of dictatorships, despotisms, and human-rights violators in UN leadership positions—positions that entail responsibilities diametrically opposed to their incumbents’ qualifications.

Here are only a few of today’s UN authority figures:

• UN Security Council: Libya
• International Atomic Energy Agency General Committee, Vice-President: Syria
• UN Disarmament Commission, Vice-Chairman: Iran. Rapporteur: Syria
• Committee on Information: China, Kazakhstan
• UN Program of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination, and Wider Appreciation of International Law Advisory Committee: Iran, Lebanon, Sudan
• Commission for Social Development: North Korea
• Commission on the Status of Women: Qatar, Togo, United Arab Emirates
• Commission on Sustainable Development: Sudan
• Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Libya, Russia
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Vice-President: Myanmar
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Board: China
• UN Development Program Executive Board: Algeria, Kazakhstan
• General Assembly Vice-Presidents: Egypt, Turkmenistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo
• General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, Vice-Chairman: Syria
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Seyed Mohammad Hashemi of Iran
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Member: Saied Rajaie Khorasani of Iran
• UN Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) Governing Council: Zimbabwe
• UN High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee: Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan
• International Labor Organization Governing Body: Saudi Arabia
• World Food Program Executive Board: Sudan, Zimbabwe

In short, membership in the UN has no price tag, although, as this list suggests, Israel-bashing and anti-Americanism are its all-but universal currency.

As noted yesterday on contentions, Libya was elected on October 16, 2007 to the UN Security Council, a position it will assume in January. Last month Syria was elected Vice-Chair of the General Conference of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. These goings-on at the UN have been presented not only as perfectly normal but as laudable. While they have provoked strong reaction in some people, they should not come as a surprise.

The UN, we are told, is an essential institution because of its unique inclusivity. The argument goes that the goals and values of democracies on the world scene are dependent on their doing business with dictators as equals. One state, one vote. Regardless of the numbers of real people being subdued in various ways back home. Regardless of the financial contribution made by each member state to the world organization. Regardless of the extent to which the founding principles and purposes of the UN are flaunted by the member state every day of the week.

So Libya and Syria join a long list of dictatorships, despotisms, and human-rights violators in UN leadership positions—positions that entail responsibilities diametrically opposed to their incumbents’ qualifications.

Here are only a few of today’s UN authority figures:

• UN Security Council: Libya
• International Atomic Energy Agency General Committee, Vice-President: Syria
• UN Disarmament Commission, Vice-Chairman: Iran. Rapporteur: Syria
• Committee on Information: China, Kazakhstan
• UN Program of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination, and Wider Appreciation of International Law Advisory Committee: Iran, Lebanon, Sudan
• Commission for Social Development: North Korea
• Commission on the Status of Women: Qatar, Togo, United Arab Emirates
• Commission on Sustainable Development: Sudan
• Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Libya, Russia
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Vice-President: Myanmar
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Board: China
• UN Development Program Executive Board: Algeria, Kazakhstan
• General Assembly Vice-Presidents: Egypt, Turkmenistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo
• General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, Vice-Chairman: Syria
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Seyed Mohammad Hashemi of Iran
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Member: Saied Rajaie Khorasani of Iran
• UN Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) Governing Council: Zimbabwe
• UN High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee: Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan
• International Labor Organization Governing Body: Saudi Arabia
• World Food Program Executive Board: Sudan, Zimbabwe

In short, membership in the UN has no price tag, although, as this list suggests, Israel-bashing and anti-Americanism are its all-but universal currency.

Read Less




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