Myanmar’s military government has decided to extend again the house arrest of prodemocracy activist and Nobel laureate Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. The decision is another sign of the contempt the Yangon government has for the international community. Ms. Suu Kyi should be released immediately and the government should commence discussions with her over the creation of a truly democratic government in Myanmar. If it fails to take those steps, the regime should be isolated. It finally looks as though opinion is changing, and the government in Yangon may yet pay a real price for its stubbornness and contempt for international norms.
The ruling junta in Yangon was stunned in 1990 when the National League for Democracy (NLD), the organization Ms. Suu Kyi heads, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections even though she and other NLD leaders were under house arrest. The government refused to honor the results and arrested thousands of other NLD members. A year later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
That international recognition has not intimidated the generals who run the country. Ms. Suu Kyi has spent 10 of the last 16 years under house arrest. She was most recently taken into custody in May 2003: she was touring the countryside to build support for her party when her motorcade was attacked by a progovernment mob. The government then put her under house arrest for “her own protection” and to maintain public order.
There were hopes that the detention would end when the official order expired this month. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan made a rare direct appeal to Gen. Than Shwe, the top leader in Myanmar, and asked that he “do the right thing” and release Ms Suu Kyi. Plainly, that appeal fell on deaf ears.
The question now is how the world will react. There are signs that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, is losing patience with the generals. Thus far the organization has maintained its policy of constructive engagement, arguing that it is better to talk to the junta than to ostracize it and hewing to its policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member states. ASEAN has also worried that a failure to talk to Myanmar would push the country further in China’s sphere of influence. Japan has also embraced ASEAN’s logic.
Yet after the most recent extension of the arrest order, Malaysia’s foreign minister, Mr. Syed Hamid Albar, conceded that he was disappointed, a sentiment echoed by his Thai counterpart, Mr. Kantathi Suphamongkhon. The organization is cognizant of the damage that the Myanmar government’s behavior has done to ASEAN’s image. Its human-rights record has figured prominently in discussions with ASEAN’s dialogue partners, and blocked some meetings with the United States and the European Union (both of which were quick to condemn the arrest extension).
There are growing demands for the U.N. Security Council to take up the situation in Myanmar. Last December, the Security Council had an “informal” discussion that featured warnings that the country was heading toward crisis. At the same time, the generals continue to thumb their nose at the world.
Traditionally, action by the U.N. has been blocked by China. China has two concerns: fear of setting a precedent regarding the discussion of domestic issues and fear of losing influence among the generals. ASEAN can shape Chinese thinking by making it clear that the refusal to join it in pressuring Myanmar’s rulers will hurt Beijing’s relations with the organization. In other words, it should pose a choice for China; Myanmar or ASEAN. At the same time, ASEAN must also do more to stop its own citizens from cutting deals with the generals. Other countries, such as Japan, should implement similar policies to isolate Myanmar’s leaders.
Myanmar’s generals are extremely stubborn. The chances that external forces will change their behavior are slim. Nonetheless, the odds of success go up if all concerned governments act in concert. The demands are simple: Release Ms. Suu Kyi, begin negotiations on the transition to a coalition government that will include the winners of the 1990 elections, and develop a “road map” to real democracy in Myanmar.
Until then, the accounts of Myanmar’s leaders should be frozen, their business assets seized, their travel curtailed. Their record shows that, rhetoric notwithstanding, they put their personal interests ahead of those of the nation. Until they reverse those priorities, neither they nor their country is welcome in other international forums. Myanmar’s leaders must understand that thumbing their noses at international opinion has painful consequences.
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