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Published: Saturday, 12/2/2006

Sanctions will help convince Myanmar


THE international community is paying increased attention to Myanmar. That's necessary for several reasons, including the fact that the military junta poses a threat to regional peace and security.

Americans don't talk much about Myanmar, the former Burma in the Indo-China region of southeast Asia. With our own troubles, the war, and other hot spots around the globe, there are not enough hours to give it all full attention. But in noting world affairs, stay abreast of Myanmar. Though it is not much bigger than the state of Texas, it is home to about 47 million people.

Myanmar is the home of Aung Sung Suu Kyi, the 61-year-old Nobel peace laureate who has dedicated her life to see democracy in her beloved Burma. The military junta - military officers who seize power then run a country - had her on lockdown when it refused to honor her National League for Democracy's election victory in 1990, and has held her in detention for most of the years since. In 1988 she went back to Burma to take care of her mother, leaving her husband, who has since died, and sons in Britain.

Unless the international community can convince the military to reform, not much hope for change is on the horizon. But what's going on there could affect world stability, which is already shaky. Specifically, the military has mostly closed itself off from the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum that Myanmar and North Korea are out in the cold, the Economist reported. If both opened their doors some, they could enjoy respect and economic assistance, she said.

However, there's little sign of that happening, especially since the junta in October kicked out the International Committee of the Red Cross, preventing it from helping civilians. But then it turned around and said it didn't do that. And international leaders still can't figure out why the military last year moved the capital from Yangon to the mountainous region of Naypyidaw in the center of the country. The Economist reported that one suspicion might be fear of an American invasion.

The military has been blamed for human rights violations, and with a million people displaced, thousands more are fleeing into neighboring countries. As many of the refugees take with them diseases and social ills, Myanmar deteriorates into chaos, with 30 percent of the population living in poverty and 30 percent of the children under age 5 suffering from malnutrition.

Rather than cease its political repression and face the need for reform and deal with its numerous ills, the military is stirring the pot of trouble, purposely targeting civilians in its campaign against long-time rebels in the Karen National Union. Meanwhile, heroin production and smuggling proliferate, human trafficking thrives, and the spread of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis is rampant.

Attempts to convince the military to reform so far have failed. Now, John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is considering drafting a resolution to the U.N. Security Council criticizing the military. He's holding out on sanctions, preferring instead to "lay out what we expect Burma's performance to be," he said.

That's playing nice-nice. The military has proven it will ignore attempts to persuade it to ease up and play fair. It's doubtful that after ruling Myanmar since 1962, the junta will do what's right now just because a resolution says it should.

Ambassador Bolton's proposal doesn't include sanctions on the military regime, even though the U.S. imposed trade sanctions on Myanmar more than three years ago. Given its history, though, there are few options to get the military to reform.

Mr. Bolton could strengthen his effort simply by including more sanctions.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com

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