Wed 30 Sep 2009
Filed under: Editorial,Opinion,Other
President Obama has decided to open talks with Myanmar’s repressive government. Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, met in New York on Tuesday with Myanmar’s United Nations envoy and a member of the government cabinet — the highest-level meeting between the two governments in many years.
We have no affection for the ruthless military junta that has denied its citizens the most basic freedoms and has kept Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years. On Monday at the United Nations, Myanmar’s prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein, again brushed aside calls for Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.
But talking is not a concession. And if handled skillfully, it might lead, in time, to positive change.
The Clinton and Bush administrations imposed tough sanctions and refused to talk until the junta released Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and 2,000 other political prisoners and made other political reforms. The punishment-only approach hasn’t worked. Nor has the engagement-only approach of Myanmar’s neighbors. Washington has now decided to give negotiations a try while keeping sanctions in place.
There are issues the two governments can discuss, including ways to curb the drug trade in Myanmar, recovering the remains of American servicemen from World War II and addressing suspicions about Myanmar’s alleged nuclear dealing with North Korea.
We agree that sanctions, including a ban on investment in Myanmar’s mineral resources, should remain until the dialogue yields significant progress — including freeing Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and letting her and her political party, the National League for Democracy, participate in next year’s general elections. The lifting of penalties can be calibrated according to whatever steps, if any, the junta takes.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has endorsed the idea of limited engagement, but she has insisted that both the junta and the United States talk with the opposition as well.
The junta is hoping the elections will legitimize its hold on power. But there are others who argue that, with the right outside pressure, it could provide some political opening. Washington must make clear that the election will have no credibility at all unless the opposition, and its leading voice, can participate.
Change is unlikely to come quickly to Myanmar. But President Obama is right to try to nudge the process forward with limited engagement.