Engage With Burma?
Sure, but not just with the generals
From the Washington Post.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
AT FIRST GLANCE, the stars seem aligned for a new era of U.S. engagement with the dictators who run Burma, the Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people also known as Myanmar. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has ordered a review of U.S. policy. Several humanitarian organizations are pushing hard for change, arguing that the regime has modified its behavior since infamously barring aid after a devastating cyclone a year ago. United Nations officials are always eager to conduct more diplomatic missions, the meager fruits of past efforts notwithstanding.
There's just one problem: Burma's maximum leader, Gen. Than Shwe, doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. While advocates of engagement insist that the regime has changed its stripes, in reality it is constantly finding new ways to shock the conscience. The latest reminder of its nature is the detention of Tin Myo Win, the personal physician of Burma's democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
A little background: Aung San Suu Kyi, 63, is the daughter of the hero of Burma's battle for independence from colonial status. In 1990, when Burma's ruling generals imagined they were popular enough to win an election, she led her political party, the National League for Democracy, to a resounding parliamentary victory, though she was even then under house arrest. The generals nullified the election and arrested many of Aung San Suu Kyi's followers. She has been held incommunicado and under house arrest for most of the time since, even as she won a Nobel Peace Prize and continued to espouse nonviolent change. In recent days, she has been reported to be ill, and -- until his arrest -- her doctor had been the only visitor she was permitted.
Burma's junta has drafted a new constitution and is planning to stage elections in 2010 that it hopes will legitimize military rule. The pro-engagement campaign in Washington is urging the Obama administration to take those elections seriously, even if Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are excluded. We think Desmond Tutu, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, showed a better understanding, in a Post op-ed last month, when he urged the administration to energize its diplomacy on Burma but also not to marginalize that country's democracy advocates -- as many as 2,000 of whom languish in terrible prisons. "[T]hose who support or have resigned themselves to their government's approach are free to speak out," he wrote. "This repression cannot be rewarded; the voices of those it has silenced must be heard as if the walls of their jails did not exist."
So, by all means, the administration should engage with Burma's leaders. But it should insist on the ability to engage with all of them -- including those now behind bars. A good start would be to insist on the release of Tin Myo Win and on freedom for his courageous patient.