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The Toronto Star

May 31, 2000,


Timothy Garton Ash

Ten years ago, the people of Burma voted overwhelmingly for the
National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the military junta refused to recognize the result, and the people
of Burma have suffered a further decade of oppression by a brutal and
corrupt army-state. When I travelled there this spring, I found a
land of fairy-tale beauty but also an all-pervading climate of fear. Burma
is at once a dream and a nightmare. I met people who had spent years
in solitary confinement, half-starved and forbidden to read or write.

What is to be done about a place like this? The U.S. and Britain have
spearheaded a policy of ostracism and pressure. The British government
has recently urged Premier Oil to reconsider its position in Burma.
A motion tabled in the House of Commons this week ''calls upon the British
government to exert the maximum possible pressure on the regime."

I believe this approach is absolutely right. The best way of explaining why
is to address three serious objections to it. The first objection is: 
and double standards. We are so outspoken in criticizing Burma's human-rights
record, yet so mealy-mouthed when it comes to China's. We go to war
to stop Serbia's rape of Kosovo, yet utter weasel words about Russia's
rape of Chechnya.

Now the beginning of an honest answer to this objection is: yes, these
are double standards. However, the proper conclusion is not that we should
soften our criticism of Burma or Serbia. It is that we should be more 
in our criticism of China and Russia. Yet it does not follow that we should act
identically: for example, urging our oil companies to get out of Russia and 
Different circumstances do require different measures. You can't treat large,
powerful countries exactly the same as small ones.

In the morally imperfect world of international relations, it's not wrong 
to mix
considerations of national interest with those of principle. And it is 
correct to
distinguish between regimes that may be open to critical engagement, and 
like the Burmese one, that seem deaf to it. If their attitude were to change,
so could ours.

The second objection is: ''it hasn't worked." People who know Burma well
are understandably distressed by the country's downward spiral into a
morass of worsening poverty, drug abuse, AIDS and educational backwardness.
Ten years of the hard Anglo-American line, discouraging foreign investment,
development loans and tourism, have, they argue, hurt the people while not
bringing the regime to the negotiating table. Since ''it hasn't worked," 
a softer line would be worth a try? Anyway, some benefits would surely
''trickle down" to ordinary men and women.

Burma's largest neighbour, China, supports (and profits from) the military
regime Again, the arguments are so familiar. And again, one has to say
that there are some regimes, and some moments, when such a softening
would be apt - for example, in encouraging a  dictatorship down a path of
reform upon which it has tentatively  embarked. But my judgment is that
this is not such a regime or such a moment. In fact, the real problem is
not that there has  been too much pressure, but that there has not been 
either internally or externally.

For all the brave efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for
Democracy, the domestic opposition has not been able to organize the kind
of sustained pressure on the rulers that the ANC achieved in South Africa and
Solidarity in Poland. Meanwhile, the relatively united front of Western
policy is undermined by the fact that Burma's largest neighbour, China, 
(and profits from) the military regime, while its other large neighbour, 
India, is
ambiguous, and several wealthy Asian countries, including Japan and Singapore,
continue to invest in Burma.

This leads directly to the third objection, which is that such a policy is an
expression of Western moral imperialism, imposing our values on Asia.
Burma has other values - yes, those famous ''Asian values."

To this there is a brief and sufficient answer. The policy advocated by the 
and Britain is the one favoured by the democratically elected 
representatives of
Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi made this very plain to me when we spoke in Rangoon
earlier this year.

Of course, there are Burmese friends of democracy who think otherwise,
and it is always a slippery undertaking to say what ''the people" in a 
want. It seems to me, the views of those on the ground, fighting for democracy
in the place itself, should be a major, if not the determining, consideration.
Those views will not always be for embargoes and sanctions.

Take the Serbian opposition, for example, which is currently under fierce 
from the Milosevic regime (although you would hardly know it from our regular
news diet, any more than you would learn about Burma's ongoing misery) .
Divided though that opposition has been, virtually all of its representatives
have spoken to agree that most Western sanctions are now counter-productive.

The best way to help the cause of democracy in Serbia, they argue, would
be a controlled lifting of the sanctions that hurt the people, combined with a
careful explanation to the Serbian people of why this was being done and a
simultaneous tightening of sanctions targeted specifically at Milosevic and his
henchmen. While I am not over-optimistic about the chances of such an 
I am convinced that this is worth a try. What is sauce for the Burmese 
goose may
be arsenic for the Serbian gander.

Meanwhile, I had to laugh when, shortly after I visited Burma, the Yugoslav 
minister arrived there, amid effusive declarations of mutual admiration and 
Rogue states of the world, unite!

We should remember Burma. We should remember Serbia. And, because we want
the same things for both of them, we should do different things about them.

Essayist and author Timothy Garton Ash is a Fellow of St. Antony's College,