Will Obama be ready for radical humanitarian intervention in Burma?

jan-19-09 Shan Herald Agency
Even before the euphoria has died down, following the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, he moved almost with lighting speed, on his first day in the office, to tackle the issue of Guantanamo Bay detention centre closure.

By Sai Wansai
Friday, 23 January 2009

Accordingly, the prison camp in Cuba would be closed down within one year and the administration has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.

Many EU countries were particularly impressed with the intended Guantanamo Bay prison closure, which was seen as a right approach to undo the Bush’s era human rights violations, and restore America’s lost moral posture, befitted for a democratic superpower.

Meanwhile, Burma has been hinting that new US President should change Washington’s tough policy towards its military regime and end the “misunderstandings” of the past, according to the AFP report on Friday.

In Obama’s inauguration speech, he states, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.

Also, in the administration’s foreign policy agenda, a paragraph reads, “Seek New Partnerships in Asia: Obama and Biden will forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements, such as the six-party talks on North Korea. They will maintain strong ties with allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia; work to build an infrastructure with countries in East Asia that can promote stability and prosperity; and work to ensure that China plays by international rules”.

One wonders, whether the overtures or hinting of the Burmese military regime to have a better relation with Washington could be a fresh start for reconciliation and the beginning of a win-win outcome solution for the conflict within Burma and as well, the hostile Burma-U.S relationship.

Arranging a kind of the six-party talks, like in the case of North Korea, could be a possibility. The only condition to get it started is the give-and-take nature of compromising must be available. While the US-led team wouldn’t pose a problem, the Burmese military regime will have to budge from its stance of insisting only to play by its own game plan and rules. In other words, the acceptance of political accommodation, all-inclusiveness and level playing field would have to be the agreed precondition.

The Burmese military regime couldn’t expect to better the relation with Washington without genuine compromise to end its tyrannical rule, oppression and political monopoly.

While the ethnic resistance and democratic opposition groups are well aware that Obama’s plate is full with heavy issues like global financial crisis, US troops withdrawal from Iraq, climate change, improving America’s relationship internationally, brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and empowering, supporting Afghanistan government against the Taliban, which would be given priority in his decision making, they are confident that the moral and humanitarian issue involving Burma would also be definitely part and parcel of his foreign policy agenda, down the line of his priority-setting.

As it is, the Burmese military has never been ready for compromise or flexibility, where power-sharing or political accommodation is concerned. In such a situation of continued rejection from the part of Burmese military, Obama would be forced to alter his approach to help deliver reconciliation and democratisation process in Burma.

Although the diplomatic overtures to woo the Burmese military for genuine democratic change and all-inclusiveness should continue without fail, Obama could also up the ante by innovative and radical humanitarian intervention, short of military undertaking by US forces. For example, Washington could work with Bangkok, hand-in-hand, to create sanctuaries along Thai-Burma border, where the bulk of 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) are struggling to survive on a daily basis. All these could take place within Burma, close to Thai border, with the help of ethnic resistance movements like Karen National Union (KNU), Shan State Army (SSA) South, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the likes. This way, the US military wouldn’t need to be involved physically, but only need to come up with material needs and know-how, under the supervision of UN or agreed international establishment, on how to manage and protect such sanctuaries.

If this happened, a row of other humanitarian devices and forms of aid could be carried out across the border without having to deal with the military regime. In other words, the international community could bypass the regime to help the badly needed oppressed population along the border.

For such a scenario to become a reality, Obama needs to secure Bangkok’s involvement in implementing humanitarian aids. It should be possible for the US President to co-ordinate and work closely with the newly elected Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, notwithstanding ASEAN, known to be a real democrat with broad vision and not shy to take hard decision.

Imagine how such radical approach could weaken the Burmese military front-line soldiers, in contested areas, physcologically, which could lead to defection to the ethnic-democratic opposition side, provided there are facilities to accommodate and handle them. If this happen, the power of Burmese military based on coercion and fear would crumble like a house of cards.

Of course, this is just one out of many options in thinking out of the box to end the stalemate and create a new balance of power, so that the Burmese military would be willing to come to the table for genuine give-and-take discussion.

At the end of the day, a two-pronged approach of “pressure and engagement” would be the only viable approach to deal with such an entrenched military dictatorship.

What the people of Burma really need now is a real physical commitment from international stakeholders, with the lead of the United States, to give them a helping hand, once another massive uprising like last saffron revolution take place, and not just mere lip-service.

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