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Sunday, July 20, 2008

The way to better human rights?

PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS IN BURMA: A Critique of Western Sanctions Policy, by Morten B. Pedersen. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, 297 pp., $75 (cloth)

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, people around the world are trying to understand the mind-boggling madness of Burma's military rulers. Why would they obstruct desperately needed relief operations and prolong the plight of survivors? Morten Pedersen helps us understand the mind-set of these prickly leaders and why they would link Western offers of disaster relief with ongoing efforts aimed at ousting them from power.

With bodies still floating in Yangon's environs, and survivors waiting in vain for relief, the military junta held a constitutional referendum on May 10. The referendum was a sham, with widespread credible reports of vote rigging. The new charter preserves the paramount political power of the military, excludes Aung San Suu Kyi from running for office and does not reflect the views of either ethnic nationalities that constitute one-third of the population or the democratic opposition.

Despite this unpromising context, Morten Pedersen suggests that the new constitution, flawed as it may be, offers a way out of the current impasse. In his view, establishing political ground rules and holding elections represent an opportunity for change and may unleash unanticipated and positive dynamics. The alternative may be a deepening of the current deadlock. He writes, "despite the obvious democratic deficit in the proposed constitution, [it] may help pave the way for longer-term political change." For the sake of the Burmese people, one can only hope he is right.

The author is a senior analyst on Burma for the International Crisis Group and is currently a research fellow at United Nations University in Tokyo. Like virtually everyone else with a passing familiarity with the military junta that seized power in 1988 and slaughtered thousands of demonstrators then, and more recently killed monks while suppressing the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Pedersen advocates political change in Burma (also known as Myanmar). However, he does not believe that abrupt regime change is either likely or beneficial, and favors an evolutionary approach to addressing Burma's political and humanitarian crises.

Pedersen believes that a democratic transition must be gradual, buttressed by extensive nation-building aimed at addressing across-the-board institutional capacity deficits. The costs of prolonged civil war and the atrophy of government institutions and democratic practices resulting from 45 years of military rule complicate considerably any political transition. In his view, the military will play a critical rule in this transition and it will only be inclined to participate if it is confident that political stability can be preserved. It also needs reassurances about accountability, always a sticky issue in countries where the military has much to answer for.

The author argues that realizing political progress will remain difficult to the extent the regime is internationally isolated and socioeconomic conditions further deteriorate. Thus, he thinks that sanctions aimed at bringing the junta to its knees are misguided and, more importantly, doomed to fail. Nestled between the natural resource guzzling economies of China and India, Burma's generals are well insulated from sanctions, especially with surging liquefied natural gas (LNG) export revenues.

Human rights advocates vilify Pedersen as an apologist for the junta because he is one of the most prominent critics of sanctions. In his view, the sanctions strategy of the United States and the European Union is a dead end that has not led to desired reforms. He writes, "The basic problem with Western policy on Burma is that it freezes a bad situation that does not contain the seeds of its own resolution."

By isolating Burma, he argues, sanctions advocates have impeded changes that might otherwise already be under way if Burma had been more fully engaged with the outside world. Blanket bans on imports and investment cost many ordinary Burmese their jobs, further eroding living standards in a very poor country. He believes that sanctions can play a more positive role if they are targeted and linked to conditional incentives. Pedersen writes, "Further isolation is likely simply to impede domestic processes of change and punish the general population, for whom the denial of foreign aid, trade, and investment only adds to the burdens of decades of domestic conflict and misrule."

Pedersen argues that Burma's problems extend well beyond political repression, democracy is not a magic wand, and improving human rights involves a long-term slog that focuses on nation-building and alleviating a severe humanitarian crisis in a country where malnutrition, malaria, AIDS and TB are endemic.

Following the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, however, the military is isolated and widely distrusted. The fundamental problem with the new constitution is that it seeks to perpetuate a discredited status quo, one that has proven incompetent at coping with the nation's gathering humanitarian crisis. Can this democracy in shackles become the training wheels for a more robust democracy or encourage fresh thinking about the nation's problems?

Whether one agrees with Pedersen's analysis or not, this thoughtful and provocative book is must reading for anyone with an interest in contemporary Burma and the debates over its future.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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