Burmese Perspectives

Guildford, Surrey, UK

4 January 2006 - the 58th Anniversary of Burma's Independence

A Short Guide to Myanmar and the International Community in 2006

* The UN Security Council held a briefing session on Myanmar on 16 December 2005. This was not a formal Security Council meeting, but a “consultation of the whole” at which the exchange of views is informal and no decisions are reached. The Council President for December 2005, Sir Emyr Jones Parry of the UK, described the briefing by UN Undersecretary-General Ibrahim Gambari as “very good and very welcome”, and he noted that “there is a very good consensus in favour of action”.
* But there is in fact no consensus at all on what kind of action. The US favours sanctions - trade, investment and financial - as well as the curtailment of humanitarian aid unless strict criteria are met. The US urges other Western countries, particularly the EU, to act tough.
* The EU and other Western countries on the other hand are not in favour of the "nothing but sanctions" approach of the US, and generally support a balanced policy of “targeted” sanctions (difficult though to identify and apply effectively), continuing humanitarian assistance and quiet diplomacy designed to promote contact and dialogue with the increasingly reclusive regime.
* The Security Council briefing was not the preferred US option. US policy has for some time sought to get Myanmar on to the Council's formal agenda. The prospects for effective action through the Council however are poor. It is not that the necessary number of votes (9 out of 15) needed to put Burma on the agenda would be difficult to obtain, only that China and Russia will resist what they see as an attempt to manipulate the Council to the detriment of long established agreements on Council competence.
* The release on 20 September 2005 of the report commissioned by Vaclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu recommending that the Council adopt a “threat to the peace” Resolution under Article VII of the UN Charter, backed by enforcement measures in the event of non-compliance, may not have helped the US. It might initially have aroused Chinese and Russian suspicions of possible US collusion with the American authors of the report. Later, they will have realised that this was not the case.
* The US Congress and the US administration implicitly support the Havel-Tutu view that the situation in Burma is a “threat to the peace” in the region and indeed internationally. However, this view is not shared by other governments, including all of Burma’s neighbours.
* Even so, an “Early Day Motion” in the UK House of Commons in favour of the Havel-Tutu recommendations already has the support of 205 members. The British Government has made no comment, except to say that it has read the Havel-Tutu report. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Professor Sergio Pinheiro told a press conference in Bangkok on 18 November 2005 that he saw “no reason to protest” about the report.
* Sir Emyr Jones Parry noted after the Council briefing session: “There is an issue for the Security Council which is simple: is this [the situation in Myanmar] a threat to international peace and security? A number of colleagues in the Council argued, I thought persuasively, that the issues we are addressing actually touch outside the borders of Myanmar. Others don't believe that.”
* This off-the-cuff assessment may be too simplistic. Governments in the UN (including China and Russia) acknowledge that there are serious transnational (cross-border) issues, including the flow of refugees, HIV/Aids and narcotics, which need to be tackled by international action and cooperation and which if left unattended may have destabilizing effects on society. It is the definition of these issues as a "threat to the peace” meriting action under Article VII of the UN Charter which a number of Council members at the briefing are unwilling to accept.
* Detailed Council examination of these cross-border issues would be unwelcome to countries like China and Thailand. It could prove a veritable Pandora's Box. Thailand has been sharply criticised for its harsh and discriminatory treatment of Burmese workers. Chinese and Thai criminal gangs are mainly responsible for the provision of chemical precursors and finance for synthetic amphetamine production from convenient safe-havens in Myanmar. Amphetamines are mainly sold in China and Thailand.
* The Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar is due to visit Burma this month on behalf of ASEAN which is increasingly impatient with the slow pace of the constitutional process in Burma. The UN Secretary-General may also pay a visit, in the hope of securing the return to Burma of his Special Representative and the Human Rights Rapporteur. Neither Syed Hamid nor Kofi Annan will wish to go unless there are real prospects of progress towards democratic rule.
* The US will continue to press during 2006 for the situation in Burma to be put on the Security Council agenda, but Chinese and Russian opposition to any sanctions-oriented Resolution will remain. Other options could be open for the Council to put Myanmar on their agenda without needing to resort to contentious Resolutions, but these may not appeal to the US. The impasse could continue.
* The US has recently said that its relations with other countries in the region may henceforth be governed by the attitude of these countries to the situation in Burma. What this “test case” approach effectively means is that countries in the region are now being quietly pressurized to adopt US values and standards in dealing with Burma. China and India have probably already concluded that the US are not all that serious.
* It would however seem that another front is now opening over Burma in South East Asia. Burma is not held in Washington to have any serious intrinsic value for US interests. Accordingly the US decision to mount a diplomatic offensive may be seen in terms of the US commitment to make human rights a cornerstone of US foreign policy generally and thus recover the moral high ground forfeited because of reports in 2004 and 2005 of human rights abuses in Iraq, at Guantanamo and elsewhere. At the end of the day, China's substantial interests in Burma will prevail over current US ideology.
* The basic problem over Myanmar remains that serious human rights abuses should ideally be dealt with by the UN Human Rights Commission, which unfortunately lacks the necessary powers and whose replacement by the UN Human Rights Council has strong international support. The Security Council has the clout to address these issues, but it is proving very difficult to adapt existing precedents and procedures to the situation in Burma.
* The better course may well lie through direct influence applied from Beijing, New Delhi and ASEAN. Writes US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in the Wall Street Journal today: "It will take a concerted, coordinated effort by the international community.......to persuade Burma's rulers to begin and sustain a process of credible and full national reconciliation that the country so desperately needs." Now if this is US policy, I would hope we can all endorse it.


Derek Tonkin


Derek Tonkin - Heathfields, Berry Lane, Worplesdon, Guildford, Surrey GU3 3PU UK
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E-mail: d.tonkin@btinternet.com