Imagine a world where you constantly fear for your family’s survival. Yesterday, your 14-year-old son was kidnapped and forced into the army. Your 17-year-old daughter vanished last month, and you know she’s been raped, sold, and possibly killed. A knock hammers the front door, and you cringe as officers call out for your spouse, who’s guilty of criticizing the ruling regime. Welcome to Burma.
Stories like these are not isolated incidents. Burma’s oppressive military regime systematically prevents democratic reform, commits “severe human rights abuses,” and was again designated one of the State Department’s 2010 Countries of Particular Concern for its suppression of religious expression. Burma is an international hotspot for human trafficking, money laundering, and drug smuggling. In fact, in a September 15 memo to the State Department, President Barack Obama threatened to slap Burma with additional sanctions for its “demonstrable” failure to fight drugs.
The terror does not end there. The military government’s historic repression of democratic alternatives has led to a violent 20-year civil war, displaced hundreds of thousands of impoverished civilians, and effectually silenced all opposition. In short, Burma’s government is run by thugs “responsible for extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths, disappearances, rape, and torture.”
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Special Representative to Burma, Derek Mitchell, stepped into this quagmire. Ambassador Mitchell’s stated objectives were to engage, cultivate useful friendships, and consider “what would be required to change the parameters of the [Burmese–U.S.] relationship to date.” Fine-sounding goals, but the evidence is in: This is not the right time to change the nature of the relationship.
The U.S. must stand strong. Obama’s strategic emphasis on a very limited dialogue is reasonable. However, as Heritage has recently stated, sanctions should remain in place until the government takes more substantive action on human rights, releases all of its political prisoners, and actively fights internal corruption. Burma’s recent superficial reforms may fuel hope of progress, but the track record shows these are more likely the sort of calculated deceptions that have occurred before.
In recent months, the Burmese government has garnered much international attention for several token gestures. For example, the government supposedly created a human rights commission, released Noble Prize winner and iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and allowed her to meet briefly with President Thein Sein. These and other actions are the bare minimum. It is not the first time she has been released in the last 20 years and not even the first time she has met with the junta’s (now in civilian dress) highest officials.
Credible observes of last year’s national elections note that the elections were a sham and that Senior General Than Shwe, who directed the junta for the past two decades, still has considerable influence over the president of this democratically elected monstrosity.
Policymakers must remember that this Burmese regime is personally responsible for kidnapping hundreds of child soldiers, imprisoning countless reporters, encouraging the sex trade, and killing or displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens along its borders.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rightly identified Burma as one of six key “Outposts of Tyranny.” That has not changed. Is it wise to tell the world’s dictators that the United States relents without genuine change? Until Burma has genuinely changed, it is not wise to tell the world’s dictators that the United States relents simply because it is fatigued from a lack of progress.
Zachary Enos is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm