Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

McCain Cold to Warmer U.S.-Burma Ties

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jun 5 2011 (IPS) - If Burma’s quasi-civilian government was hoping for warmer ties with the U.S. government, Senator John McCain’s visit to this South-east Asian nation has placed such hopes on ice.

By the end of his three-day visit to the country, also known as Myanmar, the U.S. foreign policy heavyweight dropped hints he was giving Burma a failing grade over its supposed reforms toward democracy.

“Without concrete actions by this government that signal a deeper commitment towards democratic change, there should be no easing or lifting of sanctions,” the leading member of the Republican Party, who lost to President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race, told an audience in the former Burmese capital Rangoon.

McCain’s warning on the last day of his visit to Burma from Jun.1-3, targeted the government of President Thein Sein, a retired general whose administration took power in March following a flawed general election last November that ended half a century’s rule by a military junta.

McCain’s trip to Burma followed a visit last month by senior U.S. diplomat Joseph Yun and comes ahead of the Senate hearings to confirm Derek Mitchell, poised to become the first U.S. special envoy to Burma.

In 2009, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell visited Burma, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to do so in 14 years, helping set the tone of the Obama administration’s Burma policy. That policy offers the carrot of greater engagement while wielding the stick of economic sanctions.

Before that policy, U.S. administrations had been steadfast in punishing the resource-rich but impoverished nation through a raft of sanctions. Since the mid-1990s, they included bans on imports of Burmese products into the U.S., prohibiting new American investments in Burma, and stopping the transfer of funds between the two countries.

Midway through McCain’s visit on Jun. 2, his fellow lawmakers at the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. held a hearing and echoed his views on Burma. “This engagement policy appears to have borne little fruit,” said Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, according to a story datelined Washington in The Irrawaddy, a current affairs website run by Burmese journalists in exile.

“Since its adoption, we have seen an American citizen imprisoned and tortured, Burmese generals engaged in possible nuclear proliferation with North Korea, a flawed election last year, and the continued imprisonment of over 2,000 political prisoners with only one, Aung San Suu Kyi, released,” she added, referring to the Nobel Peace laureate and pro-democracy leader who was freed from seven years of house arrest last November.

But the message McCain takes home to Washington is not all the Obama administration has to grapple with. Another challenge comes from Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, who wants a commission of inquiry (CoI) to investigate gross human rights violations committed by Burmese troops along the country’s eastern and northern borders which are home to ethnic minorities.

“The government must undertake an independent and impartial inquiry of human rights violations,” the Argentine lawyer said in Bangkok recently, following a visit to Thailand to meet Burma’s ethnic minorities who have fled their country’s decades-long conflict.

“Systematic militarisation contributes to human rights abuses,” added Quintana, who made his first call for a CoI in March 2009, a move that is now supported by 16 countries. “These abuses include land confiscation, forced labour, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence.”

Among the recent victims are women from Burma’s ethnic Shan minority, whose accounts of suffering were shared with the U.N. envoy by the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a non-governmental group monitoring human rights violations in eastern Burma.

“Three Shan women were gang raped by soldiers from a Burmese light infantry brigade on Mar. 21,” revealed Charm Tong, a SWAN spokeswoman.

But while such disturbing accounts may strengthen the case for sanctions, critics of the measures imposed by the U.S. and European governments offer an equally disturbing parallel. The combination of economic sanctions and pressure to limit international humanitarian assistance to Burma has resulted in tens of thousands of children under five years dying from “preventable diseases,” including 1, they say.

The U.N. says Burma has the second worst child mortality rate in Asia, following war-ravaged Afghanistan. For every 1,000 babies born, an estimated 66 die before reaching the age of five, or one in every 15 children.

But humanitarian workers in Burma complain that such deaths – one estimate puts it at over 70,000 a year – have not triggered a rise in aid from the West. They point out that the country gets between five to six U.S. dollars per capita of aid, just one-tenth the amount Western donors spend per citizen in neighbouring and equally repressive Laos.

Western sanctions “have been incredibly counter-productive,” says Thant Myint-U, a respected Burmese historian. “The argument was that providing aid through the government would only strengthen repressive structures. But in thinking of the future, we need to rethink this equation.”

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