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Will the Burmese Generals Unclench Their Fists?

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Message Zaw Nay Aung

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton admitted that US sanctions against Burmese junta were not effective and Washington was reviewing its policy on Burma. Nevertheless, it could not be interpreted that the US government would be seeking engagement with the junta as she said the engagement did not work either. 

The new administration is looking for alternative approaches to influence the junta.  Clinton  also visited the regional body, ASEAN's headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia on Wednesday during her tour in Southeast Asia, and some observers believe that Obama's Administration would try to develop closer ties with ASEAN on resolving Burma's crisis.  President Obama claimed that America would extend a hand to the dictators if they would change their stance. The new administration seems to look for alternative approaches dealing with authoritarian regimes like the Burmese junta.

If the Generals wish to form a better relationship with the Obama administration, they need to release their grips on power and only then they can unclench their fists. Obviously, they can not shake hands with Washington while iron-gripping the power and silencing the dissidents. The US government should also be aware that ASEAN has been undermining the US and other Western measures against the junta over the years.  ASEAN and other regional countries have  been "black knights," saving Burma's military regime from Western punitive measures. A multilateral approach is needed and crucially the cooperation from the regional countries would lead to significant progress in shaping Burma's democratic future. 

Although Clinton argued that sanctions against the junta did not make a difference, how their measures were undermined by the regional countries must be noted as the junta entrenched its power with economic and political support from the regional counterparts. Although the US should try different approaches, Washington needs a better review of current measures to  redefine effective policy enhancements.
Since the military took over power in 1988, the US imposed a series of measures against the junta from visa bans, trade sanctions and other features of economic coercion. However, the US sanctions were filled with crucial loopholes--such as the US firm Chevron is still making money out of Burma. This scenario is also the same for Europe--French oil giant Total has been dealing with the regime no matter that suffering Burmese people cried out for Total to stop fuelling the oppression.

It is time for a change of US policy towards the Burmese junta through strengthening the current measures, after fixing the loopholes and implementing multilateral actions. While the regional selfish money-makers are happy with bloody money from a hellish situation in this Southeast Asian country, the West should not let their hands be stained with blood after leaving their businesses in Burma where Generals rely on the vital economic sources such as oil and gas extraction.

If the Obama administration wants to see the generals unclench their fists, the crucial and vital sources energising the regime must be completely cut off.  Then, the hard-line Generals would release their grips on power, permitting  dissidents to cry out for freedom and democracy.

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Zaw Nay Aung is director of London-based human rights advocacy and think tank, Burma Independence Advocates.
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