Talks and sanctions

There appears to be a distinct change in the United States’ policy towards Burma, with Hillary Clinton declaring that talks with the junta would be “stepped up” in parallel with the sanctions.
This certainly is a forward progression not least because the imprisoned democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has lent support to the move. There may be hope yet that direct engagement with the rulers will provide the impetus for democratic reforms.

There is increasing realisation in the West that the sanctions regime hasn’t been effective against a ruthless junta that is even prepared to resist diplomatic isolation. There is acknowledgement too in certain quarters that the West’s hard line approach has been a disaster, with scarcely a change in the prolonged predicament of Suu Kyi.

Much will depend on the pace at which Burma names its interlocutor for the bilateral talks. The shift in the US style of engagement becomes clear from the secretary of state’s address at a meeting of the Friends of Burma in New York: “Any debate that pits sanctions against engagement creates a false choice. Going forward, we’ll need to employ both of these tools.”

She has taken care to couch her prescription with the caveat: “Lifting sanctions now would send the wrong signal … But we will be willing to discuss the easing of sanctions in response to significant actions that address the core human rights and democracy issues that are inhibiting Burma’s progress.”

For both sides, it will be a very delicate balance to sustain, given the country’s brutal record in stifling democracy. Yet it must be conceded that the gesture raises hope.

As much is clear from the immediate response of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy: “The new US approach will bring improved and more transparent relations.”

Suu Kyi herself has backed the move with the very reasonable suggestion that the US dealings ought to be conducted with both the junta and the pro-democracy leaders.

One need hardly add that only then will the Obama administration’s review of its policy towards Burma be meaningful.
By The Statesman
New Delhi
Published on September 30, 2009

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