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A Burma Plan for Mr. Obama

By US Campaign for Burma  •  March 3, 2010

By Aung Din
Wall Street Journal

The news from Burma, my home country, seems to only go from bad to worse. Last week, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was denied yet another appeal and will remain under house arrest. Last month, Burmese-American human-rights activist Kyaw Zaw Lwin, also known as Nyi Nyi Aung, was sentenced to three years in prison on trumped up fraud and forgery charges.

This past July, President Obama signed into law the Burma Sanctions Renewal Act, which extended strict sanctions on the country’s military junta for three more years. But the administration must also be careful that its policy of “pragmatic engagement” with Burma’s military rulers does not legitimize a fundamentally corrupt regime.

Than Shwe, the senior general who heads the junta, has promised to hold nationwide elections this year, the first since Ms. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in 1990 elections—which were nullified by the military. But the election will be a sham.

Ms. Suu Kyi, her supporters, and many of Burma’s long-persecuted ethnic groups, including the Karen, Karenni and Shan, are rightfully refusing to participate in this charade unless the regime amends the constitution to allow for free and fair elections, a legitimate civilian government and equal rights and representation for all ethnic groups.

But first the regime must release its thousands of political prisoners, including hundreds of monks who took part in the 2007 antigovernment protests known as the Saffron Revolution.

Thus far, however, Gen. Than Shwe has been employing his usual mix of violence, brutality and war. He’s rounding up and arresting opposition members and increasing his assault on the Karen and other ethnic minorities, displacing more than 75,000 people in Karen State in eastern Burma in 2009 alone.

The answer lies in placing collective pressure on the regime to engage in meaningful and time-bound dialogue with Ms. Suu Kyi, her party, and the leaders of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Failing that, the U.S. should take the lead in organizing a global arms embargo against the regime, and establish a United Nations commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This will require Mr. Obama’s strong leadership and commitment. His Burma policy objectives are sound: the release of all political prisoners, an end to conflict with ethnic minorities, accountability for human-rights violators, and genuine dialogue among all stakeholders.

Mr. Obama should appoint a U.S. policy coordinator for Burma, legislatively mandated by Congress since 2008. He should also urge the European Union to join with the United States, Canada and Australia in imposing targeted financial and banking sanctions against the generals, their families and their crony business partners. He should also remind the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that it needs to put serious diplomatic pressure on the regime for a negotiated settlement.

Mr. Obama’s presidency is the product of the blood spilled and courage displayed by American freedom fighters and civil-rights activists barely a generation ago. Our hope is that he recognizes their sacrifices by supporting the Burmese people with decisive action. He could start by demanding the release of Ms. Suu Kyi and American human-rights activist Kyaw Zaw Lwin.

Aung Din was a political prisoner in Burma between 1989 and 1993. He is now the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Campaign for Burma.

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