Panel Urges New Engagement

A blue-ribbon task force says Washington should take a new tack in engaging Burma.
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Former junta chief Than Shwe reviews an honor guard in Myanmar in a file photo.
Former junta chief Than Shwe reviews an honor guard in Myanmar in a file photo.

WASHINGTON—The United States should be reaching out to grassroots and minority groups ahead of elections run by Burma’s secretive military government, despite its having effectively banned the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi from taking part, a new report says.

“We should be positioning ourselves to engage not only with Burma military leaders, but wider groups inside Burma,” retired Gen. Wesley Clark, co-chair of the Asia Society’s task force on Burma, said.

“The United States should press Burmese leaders strongly on dialogue and inclusivity before the elections,” Clark added in releasing the report here.

Clark’s co-chair was Henrietta Fore, director of foreign aid under then Republican president George W. Bush. Task force members included billionaire philanthropist George Soros and Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.

Under new election legislation, Aung San Suu Kyi—a Nobel Peace laureate and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party—cannot stand in elections this year on the grounds that she is a serving prisoner.

The legislation prompted an international outcry, with Washington saying it wouldn’t recognize the outcome of the polls, scheduled for later this year.

Aung San Suu Kyi has called the junta’s new election law “shameful,”  because of provisions that appear to have only one aim: that of disqualifying her from leading any opposition party because of her detention under house arrest.

Thousands barred

Her NLD party has vowed to boycott the elections.

The law also bars around 2,000 imprisoned dissidents, many of whom are talented opposition politicians, from participating.

The Asia Society’s task force said the Obama administration should broaden its engagement with Burma to reach more of the population.

While it broadly endorsed President Barack Obama’s bid for dialogue with the junta, it also warned that the country’s military rulers may try to use talks with the United States to confer legitimacy on the elections set for 2010.

The report said Washington could tighten or remove sanctions on the regime depending on progress made on human rights and democratic development.

But it also said the United States should ramp up assistance to ordinary Burmese, including nongovernmental organizations, farmers, and small businesses.

“This is what we can do—we can work with the population,” said Clark.

“What we wanted to do was lay out a positive direction where the leadership in Burma could take a step forward and see the benefits that could occur if they would do that.”

First polls in 20 years

The elections will be the first in Burma since 1990, when the NLD secured a landslide victory but was not allowed to take power.

“The government clearly has tried to force NLD out of the elections,” former U.S. chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, Priscilla Clapp, said.

“Now it’s very clear why they ran that trial against Aung San Suu Kyi last year, because the Constitution said anybody who is currently serving a court sentence is not eligible to run in the parliamentary election,” Clapp said.

But she added: “That doesn’t mean that she will be ineligible for the rest of her life.”

Clapp said that under current circumstances, the Burmese ruling junta seemed to be going “backward, not forward.”

More and better aid

Asia Society policy studies director Suzanne diMaggio called on the U.S. government to focus on channels of communication and assistance programs, followed by reform-oriented economic activity, with economic sanctions kept in reserve as a possible measure.

“During the period of potential transition the task force believes that the U.S. should encourage the process of political development towards democratic norms,” she said.

While Burma has signed international conventions and treaties, the military regime has consistently failed to honor pledges to improve its human rights record or carry out democratic reforms.

The Burmese junta has also been accused of persecuting the country’s ethnic minorities, sparking a continuing exodus.

Refugee crisis, rights abuses

Some 140,000 refugees live in camps along the Thai-Burma border, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

In its latest report on human rights worldwide, the U.S. State Department said that Burma’s 54 million people are “ruled by a highly authoritarian military regime dominated by the majority ethnic Burman group.”

Military officers wielded ultimate authority at each level of government and continued to abridge the right of citizens to change their government, as well as committing other severe human rights abuses, the report said.

It cited alleged irregularities in a 2008 referendum, including voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.

“Government security forces allowed custodial deaths to occur and committed extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rape, and torture. The government detained civic activists indefinitely and without charges. In addition regime-sponsored mass-member organizations engaged in harassment, abuse, and detention of human rights and pro-democracy activists,” it said.

Original reporting in English and Burmese by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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