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Rethinking Relations With Burma

Rethinking Relations With Burma
President Barack Obama has held out his hand to world leaders seeking engagement, rather than confrontation to solve international disputes. This entails a review of the way the United States deals with specific countries, and such an effort is now under way regarding the government of Burma.

The U.S. government has long sought to encourage peaceful change in that Southeast Asian nation and has promoted genuine dialogue with opposition groups as necessary for transition to a representative government that responds to the will of its people. Since the 1960s, Burma has been controlled by a military junta that tolerates no opposition and keeps tight control of the nation's economy.

More than two thousand political prisoners languish in Burmese jails, a number that has doubled in the past 18 months, and democracy activist leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has remained under house arrest for the majority of the past 19 years. In response, the U.S. has maintained economic sanctions and visa bans against members of the junta and its top supporters, but with no appreciable change in attitude by the generals in Rangoon.

On her recent visit to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is looking at the best ways to influence the Burmese regime, acknowledging that neither sanctions nor engagement have worked. No decisions have been made, but there is a clear goal to develop a policy that ultimately benefits the Burmese people in their desire to shape the future of their own country.

In what the regime touts as a nod toward reform, the Burmese government has planned elections next year under a constitution approved in a referendum that was neither free nor fair, and conducted amid the turmoil following Cyclone Nargis, which devastated parts of the country. But it has a long way to go before achieving true representative government, since the military is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament. In its review of its approach to Burma, U.S. leaders will have much to consider.