- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

Life is moving from bad to worse in Burma. Over the weekend, the ruling military junta shut down opposition party headquarters, arrested pro-democracy leaders, including Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and closed the universities in Rangoon. Human-rights groups are reporting that as many as 70 were killed in the crackdown, and there is news that Suu Kyi was injured when her motorcade was hit with gunfire. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s office released a statement saying the bloodshed underlines the need for national reconciliation. No kidding. The hard part is knowing what can be done to improve the situation there.

The Free Burma Coalition is recommending an immediate response by the Bush administration, including legislation that bans all imports from Burma, expands current visa restrictions to forbid entry to all members of the political arm of the regime and freezes all Burmese assets in the United States. Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, who yesterday called the attacks a “blitzkrieg on freedom,” plans on introducing a sanctions bill this week.

There is no question that the junta’s brutalities are outrageous and deserve comment. Our reservation is that we do not think sanctions work, and therefore cannot endorse them. In the past 10 years, Washington has imposed sanctions on at least 35 countries, which in most cases only make the situation worse for the people in targeted nations. Since June 2000, more than 40 major U.S. companies — including Wal-Mart, Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger — have stopped doing business in Burma. The trade group American Apparel & Footwear Association has backed a ban on Burmese exports. The net political gain from these actions has not amounted to much because the government is openly callous to the plight of its people, more than 50 percent of whom live on less than a dollar a day.

The weekend crackdown reveals that hardliners are solidifying their position among the generals, and that the government is turning its back on U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations. This posture suggests the junta has decided to further isolate itself from the world, which indicates that more sanctions would be ineffective. The only other option is to send in troops and try to institute democracy by the bayonet. There does not appear to be a country or an international body willing to support such an action, and there are no other constructive proposals on the table.

We cannot support bad policies simply so politicians and bureaucrats can say they are doing something if evidence shows that something won’t work. Such pronouncements are worse than useless. They create the public illusion that effective action is being taken to right a wrong. If the fact of the world’s impotence is made apparent, this realization might eventually lead to a political will to actually do something to solve the problem.

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