SIX months ago, President Clinton publicly assured the Burmese people that ``America stands with them in the struggle for freedom in Burma.'' Next week at the United Nations, he and other Western leaders have an opportunity to make good that commitment by encouraging member states to avoid providing arms to the Burmese military junta. Yet the commitment appears to be faltering.
A voluntary arms boycott sponsored by the UN General Assembly would finally give teeth to the UN's repeated calls to the junta to transfer power to pro-democracy legislators elected in a 1990 landslide victory. Coupled with a proposed role for the UN secretary-general in promoting dialogue among the junta, legislators, and ethnic groups seeking autonomy, the initiative would enhance prospects for settlement of Burma's 40-year-old disputes.
US officials and international leaders have urged a UN arms boycott against Burma. In a May bipartisan resolution, US senators called on Mr. Clinton to ``encourage the adoption of an arms embargo and other sanctions against the regime in Burma.'' That month Nobel laureates, including Desmond Tutu, urged Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to seek a ``comprehensive and effective arms embargo.''
After the meeting, Clinton said he was ``deeply concerned by the tragic human rights situation in Burma.'' He commissioned a complete review of US policy toward Burma. According to official sources, the paper advocates US leadership in pressing a UN General Assembly-backed arms restraint against Burma.
Yet the review languishes at the White House, awaiting final approval; meanwhile, the UN initiative is stagnating. On Nov. 3 the Senate foreign relations committee unanimously urged release of the review's findings.
Burma's tragedy has earned it a reputation as the ``Bosnia of Asia.'' The military seized power in 1988 and, naming itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has killed, arrested, tortured, or forced out of the country more than half a million civilians; and it has repressed free-thinkers like Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel peace prize, a pro-democracy leader who has been under house arrest since 1987. Some 40 members of parliament elected in 1990 remain in detention; public demonstrations are banned. Last month, 12 people received 20-year sentences for disseminating pro-democracy literature.
The SLORC has uprooted some 500,000 villagers in its war against minority ethnic groups seeking autonomy. According to the State Department, ``the Burmese military continues to use civilian corvee [forced] labor and prison labor in combat areas.'' Citing well-placed sources, the State Department reports that ``at times [porters] were placed at the head of columns to detonate mines and booby traps and to spring ambushes.''
Despite these atrocities, momentum for the UN arms measure stalled among Western nations. Reportedly, the Security Council somehow feels threatened and does not want to irritate Burma's Asian neighbors. Yet General Assembly boycotts have served as blueprints for later action by the Security Council in other situations, including Haiti and South Africa. The Clinton administration could easily diffuse concern over Burma's neighbors.
Japan and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who generally advocate constructive engagement with their renegade neighbor, freely admit their frustration with the lack of progress toward democratization and liberalization in Burma. Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Tsutomu Hata urged his Burmese counterpart, Ohn Gyaw, to heed the world's calls to restore democracy, and to free Ms. Suu Kyi.
Clinton and other Western leaders have ready resources to address the Asian preference for constructive engagement. The emphasis on dispute settlement proposed with the arms initiative would focus a goal common for all: conflict resolution. The leaders could solicit Asian support for a UN arms restraint in return for unrelated economic deals or a package of carrots and sticks, including diminishing opposition to allowing Burma ``special guest'' status at ASEAN meetings.
There is still time for the West to act, and for the US to make good on its promises to fortify Burma's struggling pro-democracy movement.
Clear support for an arms boycott could loosen the iron grip of the Burmese junta and help win the 40 million citizens of Burma the representative government and respect for those human rights that the community of nations holds most dear. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.