Friday, November 25, 2005

Back on the Radar Screen

One significant though unreported aspect of President George W. Bush’s recent trip through Asia was the attention he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice devoted to Myanmar. It featured prominently in his speech in Kyoto and in meetings with Southeast Asian leaders in Pusan.

In his Kyoto speech Bush noted that, “abuses by the Myanmarese military are widespread and include rape, execution and forced relocation; use of child soldiers and religious discrimination are all too common. The people of Myanmar live in the darkness of tyranny – but the light of freedom shines in their hearts. They want their liberty and one day they will have it.”

Shortly before he departed on his week-long trip, Bush gave some quality time at the White House to Charm Tong, the founder of Shan Women’s Action Network. Its acronym SWAN seems a little too peaceful for its mission, which is to draw attention to the army’s alleged use of rape as a weapon of war. The 24-year-old activist was recently named one of TimeAsia’s “Asian Heroes for 2005.”

In Pusan Bush met with seven ASEAN leaders (Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are not members of the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Council) and again urged them to pressure Yangon to deal respectfully with the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Secretary Rice said Myanmar “too often kind of falls off the radar screen of people who won’t concern themselves every day with human rights and democracy issues.

Myanmar has become an embarrassment to ASEAN, but a cardinal rule of the grouping is not to criticize a member. It goes back to the founding days when several members, notably Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, were run by dictators. It was something of a milestone when earlier this year Malaysia publicly urged Yangon to decline chairmanship of ASEAN next year.

To the surprise of many Myanmar agreed to forego its turn. Quite probably the junta didn’t want the press to descend on its capital, or, I suppose, one might now say former capital. Earlier this month civil servants began what might be called another forced relocation -- to a new capital in the village of Pyinmana about 400 km to the north of Yangon in central Burma.

The generals have been as secretive about this latest move as they are about just about everything else. The diplomatic corps apparently has not moved to this new Brasilia in the jungle, but may be forced to do so later. The town is said to have few amenities except mansions for the generals and a de riguor golf course.

It has not been clear why the capital move is being made. Some speculate that the generals fear that Yangon might be too exposed to an American assault being located on the coast. Since that prospect is very unlikely another reason may be to insulate the rulers against the kind of street rioting that convulsed the capital in 1988.

Significantly, the Philippines broke ranks with ASEAN to announce that it would support the placing of a resolution to debate Myanmar before the U.N. Security Council. Washington wants the issue to be debated but has had trouble rounding up support of the nine council members necessary to table a resolution.

Support of the Philippines might be enough to force the issue, but unfortunately, Manila goes off the council in January, so Washington has to move fast or try to round up support from another crew of nations that take their seats next year. The Russians and Chinese are likely to veto any action that might materialize, but many still see value in forcing a debate and putting the two countries on record as supporting the dictatorship against world opinion.

In late September a report commissioned by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel winner Desmond Tutu described Myanmar as a present threat to regional security: “the situation in Myanmar is much more severe compared with other countries in which the UN Security Council has chosen to act in recent years.” It listed Liberia, Rwanda, Haiti and Sierra Leone, as examples. Indeed, it said Myanmar was an even great threat to peace than the previous examples.

The report called for national reconciliation with pro-democratic forces, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and permitting U.N. agencies and representatives to enter the country, but it falls short of calling for any kind of collective intervention, something certain to be opposed not only by China and Russia but probably by ASEAN neighbors as well.

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