Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western governments have failed to pressure the repressive Burmese government, signaling a potentially major shift in U.S. policy.
Clinton, at a news conference here, did not deny that easing sanctions was one of the ideas under consideration by the Obama administration as part of a major review, saying that "we are looking at possible ideas that can be presented." She said she had discussed the issue with Indonesian officials.
"Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta," she said, adding that the route taken by Burma's neighbors of "reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either."
In an influential report issued last October, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group argued that humanitarian aid should begin to flow into the country and that bans on Burmese garments, agriculture and fishery products and restrictions on tourism should be lifted.
"It is a mistake in the Myanmar context to use aid as a bargaining chip, to be given only in return for political change," the report said. "Twenty years of aid restrictions -- which see Myanmar receiving twenty times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries -- have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change."
While Clinton has been careful not to tip her hand on the direction of the policy review, she has used strikingly mild language about the Burmese government, describing "the unfortunate path" taken by Burma, leaving it "impervious to influence from anyone."
During her stop in Indonesia, Clinton also visited the Jakarta-based headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc of 10 nations that includes Burma but is often criticized as ineffectual.
As scores of ASEAN employees lined the balconies to applaud her, Clinton announced that the Obama administration would consider signing the group's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a nonaggression pact signed by 15 nations outside the region. The Bush administration had declined to sign it, in part because of concerns it might hamper policy toward Burma.
Clinton also said she would attend a regional security meeting in July, a diplomatic session that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice skipped twice during her four-year tenure. "It really shows the seriousness of the United States to end its diplomatic absenteeism in the region," a beaming ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said.
Sanctions are generally regarded as an appropriate measure to punish a government that refuses to abide by international law; in fact in the diplomatic realm, this belief is something of a truism. Hence the willingness of some to cling to the idea of sanctions towards Burma, even though the military regime is mostly impervious and completely unresponsive to sanctions, which mostly punish a civilian population that the regime has unrelenting control over. While I do not think violent and oppressive regimes should be rewarded for their bad behavior, I certainly have no problem with rewarding them for good behavior, especially when they shrug whatever punishments we are capable of. It will be interesting to see what carrots the Obama administration has in mind for the Burmese regime.