- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

In any effort to bring about change within undemocratic regimes, there is a time to apply pressure and a time to open doors.

Before the military government of Myanmar Burma, as it's known to the rest of the world freed Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, it was time for the United States to apply pressure. Released Monday, after 19 months of confinement, now is the time for the United States to open doors. We have important humanitarian, geopolitical and security reasons for doing so.

Since 1991, when the existing military leadership invalidated the 82 percent public vote that would have installed Mrs. Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy in power, the United States has ratcheted up sanctions against Myanmar's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the military government is officially known. In an appropriate response to the oppression there, we cut off imports of Burmese textiles that accounted for 40 percent of Burma's exports to the United States and furnished the bulk of Burma's hard currency. We ended all military sales and finally, in 1997, banned new investment in Burma. By then, many existing U.S. firms, including big players like Levi Strauss, Wal-Mart, Texaco and PepsiCo, had already withdrawn from that dictatorial country.

Some human-rights activists and other opponents to the strong Burma government still want Congress to pass legislation banning all imports from Burma. Many would welcome the remaining American companies withdrawing all their investment from there as well.

Pressure, they contend, is the only thing that dictators understand. They cite the sanctions applied against South Africa in achieving first the release of Nelson Mandela and then the dissolution of apartheid back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There's strong justification for that argument if the economic sanctions are international in scope, as they were (at least nominally) against the apartheid regime, and if the regime stands against reforms.

Today, further U.S. sanctions against Burma would be unilateral, and come at a time of human-rights progress. As studies by the International Institute for Economics show, unilateral economic sanctions rarely achieve their intended purpose. They can occasionally prompt a regime to step back from reforms.

Regardless, Burma is now stepping forward, making a big reform in releasing Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma's neighbors, including fellow members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), want to engage the Burmese government more, not less. They sensibly wish to encourage further decency in human rights and freedom, rather than apply fresh punishment for past violations.

That's why ASEAN jumped ahead of Burma's reform steps when welcoming the country into the regional organization five years ago. These nations knew that a quarantine of Burma went against prospects for progress in freedom and sent the long- anemic Burmese economy plummeting.

By opening their doors to Burma, ASEAN subtly attempted to wean the country of its dependence on China and its international isolation. While never an economic powerhouse, Burma does occupy valuable land standing at a crossroads between China, India and East Asia, and providing a bridge to the Bay of Bengal.

Moreover, the long-suffering Burmese now face massive poverty and rising rates of malaria, infant mortality, drug abuse and AIDS. Resources for controlling mosquito populations have fallen, causing the malaria rate there to jump from 5 percent in the mid-1980s to more than 20 percent in recent years. Infant mortality rates, officially reported at 46 per 1,000 six times the U.S. rate but health experts believe it could actually be two or three times that figure. This would make it among the worst in the world.

The scourge of drug abuse has also been multiplied by Burma's position in the fertile Golden Triangle, long a key heroin-producing region along the Mekong River. Much like Afghanistan's poppy farmers, local farmers in Burma rely on poppies as their lone cash crop to generate whatever scant income they can to feed their families.

Since 1988, trade sanctions and a sense of international isolation encouraged the military regime to warm its relations with the notorious Khun Sa, who headed a 15,000-strong private army financed by the drug trade. Billions of dollars worth of Burmese drugs reached our shores.

Along with the suffering of addiction comes the tragedy of AIDS. Burma has been stricken with AIDS infecting more than 2 percent of the total adult population the second worst in Asia. In Mandalay, nearly 90 percent of intravenous drug users have tested positive for AIDS.

In a nutshell, we have areas of serious cooperation to pursue. We can do so while sending a message that their release of Mrs. Suu Kyi and their promise to release others who do not "threaten the existing peace, stability and unity of the nation" is a good first step. It must be implemented, and followed up by new steps towards decency.

To help move that country toward greater openness and freedom entails engaging Burma's current military leaders in dialogue to find constructive solutions to these economic and political problems. Punishing it with further isolation would be going in the wrong direction.


Ken Adelman, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and arms control director in the Reagan administration, now serves as secretary of the board for Freedom House.


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