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Carrots and sticks in Burma

2010 November 11
by Paul Vallely

No-one should be in any doubt that the general election in Burma last weekend was a mockery of the democratic process. There may have been 37 political parties involved but dozens of senior officers “retired” to stand for election. More than two-thirds of the 3,000 candidates who ran had close links to the military.

The elections, the first for 20 years, were boycotted by the National League for Democracy, which gained a landslide victory under its leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has been in prison or under house arrest ever since. Yesterday Burma’s supreme court, which is controlled by the military, rejected an appeal by Ms Suu Kyi against her house arrest which was due to run out on Saturday. The pro-democracy leader’s supporters fear the government will now keep her under arrest.

Burma’s generals are guilty of a raft of human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians, widespread forced labour and the jailing of over 2,000 political prisoners. But the international community has proved impotent in the face of this. The UN imposed sanctions a decade ago but these have been undermined by nations greedy for Burmese oil, including China, France, Japan, India, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea and Thailand.

In recent months the United States has shifted from its unrelentingly confrontational approach to Burma. Barack Obama has signalled a greater engagement with Burma, as with other regimes of which the US disapproves. Shunning all contact, Washington has decided, makes it harder to tackle regional problems like refugees, drug-trafficking and disease control.  The junta’s growing links with North Korea adds to the risks of nuclear proliferation.

It is important not to go soft on the generals. But the stick of smart sanctions, targeted on senior figures in the regime, is being complemented by the offer of humanitarian aid, building on the relief given after the cyclone which devastated Burma last year, killing 150,000 people. It is important to continue this twin-tracked approach. These elections, though deeply flawed, could mark the start of a process of limited democratisation. The news that Ms Suu Kyi’s son was yesterday, at last, given a visa to enter the country to visit his mother, is another small concession. Sticks and carrots could turn out to be more productive than big sticks waved but never weilded.

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