The Burma issue is like a broken record: the same things are repeated over and over.
No 1: The junta routinely arrests political activists; it says economic sanctions should be repealed and blames the opposition party for it; it tries to sell its upcoming election in 2010, as part of its democracy roadmap.
No 2: The opposition parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD), call for dialogue without any new, results-oriented strategies. They simply oppose whatever the government does.
No 3: All the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries are afraid directly confront the Burmese military leaders.
No 4: Without action, the international community calls for the release of all political prisoners and for dialogue between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
No 5: The US remains the strongest vocal critic of the military leaders.
After hearing most of these positions repeated over and over for two decades, it’s not surprising that people are jaded and complacent. But things may be changing.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during her first trip to Asia: “We want to see a time when citizens of Burma and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi can live freely in their own country.”
The big question is when and how? During her trip, Clinton talked about Burma with Japan, Indonesia and China. She noted that US policy has failed to achieve positive results. “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta.”
She noted the path taken by Burma’s neighboring countries, a “constructive engagement policy,” hasn’t influenced the military leaders either.
The new administration of US President Barack Obama can be expected to create a new approach to Burma, based on Obama’s track record of creative thinking and pragmatism.
In his inaugural address, his message was clear: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Definitely, his message was heard by Burma’s military leaders.
Two core political bargaining chips stand out: the release all political prisoners and the removal of economic sanctions.
The first is a key principle of the NLD; the second is a key principle of the junta.
These two issues are probably the keys to unlocking the status quo in Burma.
When UN Special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Burma recently, premier Gen Thein Sein told the envoy, “The UN should make an effort to lift economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar [Burma], if the organization wants to see a prosperous Myanmar with political stability.”
The prime minister said economic sanctions have hindered Burma’s efforts to alleviate poverty. He said the country is “like a person who is forced to run quickly while his legs are tied together.”
The prime minister sent a clear message to the Western world, especially the US, which has led the world effort to impose sanctions since 1997.
During her meeting with Gambari, Suu Kyi and senior NLD leaders emphasized the release of all political prisoners and a return to real dialogue.
President Obama and his secretary of state should make these two issues the focus of direct, or back channel, talks with the junta, and the sooner the better.
To drive home the message that direct talks are needed, the US administration should immediately name a special envoy to Burma, to carry the administration’s negotiating views directly to Than Shwe.
Last November, former President George W Bush appointed Michael Green as his special Burma policy coordinator with a rank of ambassador. But President Obama has yet to nominate him for the job.
With a special Burma envoy in place, the United States can get down to business, focusing on a basic quid pro quo: the release of all political prisoners for a lifting of economic sanctions.
If progress can be made on these two key issues, then the door is open for more change, and the old broken record will be broken.