BURMA could become the next country after China to come under pressure from the Clinton administration to clean up its human rights record.
In a meeting last week, United States officials agreed to pursue several measures aimed at forcing the military regime that rules the isolated Southeast Asian nation into ``opening a dialogue'' with its political opponents, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Laureate under house arrest since 1989.
``If Burma remains intransigent,'' said an administration official with long experience in Asia, ``we will seek ways to enhance pressure on the regime. This is still a fundamentally repressive regime.'' He spoke following a meeting of deputy chiefs of the National Security Council, State Department, Pentagon, and other departments.
The administration has been working since last summer to produce a new policy for Burma, whose government was described in the 1993 State Department Human Rights Report as one of the world's most repressive. Congressional human rights advocates have urged stronger measures than the existing ban on military and economic aid.
Among the measures the US may pursue are possible economic sanctions against Burma, which the regime renamed Myanmar after a 1988 massacre that ended a pro-democracy uprising.
The US may propose the sanctions at the Group of Seven meeting of major industrial powers in June. But the move appears to have little support among Burma's neighbors or from Europe and Japan.
A State Department official said: ``It's hard to get other countries - even those active in human rights such as Australia and Europe - to go along with economic sanctions. They would be tough to enforce because ASEAN disagrees.''
The six nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines - believe in ``constructive engagement'' with nearby Burma, that is maintaining diplomatic and economic ties in the hope that human rights will gradually improve as Burma's economy does. They also view human rights as relative to each nation's culture.
Burma has strengthened its hand by opening itself recently to foreign investment. In December, Finance Minister Win Tin said nearly $1 billion in foreign investment had been pumped into the country in 1992. The main investors come from the US, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong.
Economic sanctions would pose a particular problem for US petroleum companies that have invested in Burma. As an alternative, the administration is considering a ``code of conduct'' for US businesses that would bar use of prison labor and prevent building factories on land from which Burmese have been forcibly displaced.
In an attempt to claim that Burma is moving towards democracy, military leaders have set up a National Convention consisting of hand-picked military supporters to draw up a new constitution that would, among other things, ensure the army's control over civilian life.
Twelve dissidents who distributed handbills against the convention were sentenced in October to 20 years in prison.
Other measures that the US may pursue is an increase in humanitarian aid to some 71,000 displaced Burmese along the Thai border - mainly ethnic Karens and Mons fleeing from or engaged in a 45-year rebellion against Rangoon's authority.
The official said the aid was not intended as a threat to support the insurgencies. US aid to Cambodian refugees in Thailand from 1979 to 1991 helped fuel a long guerrilla war against Vietnamese occupation.
Last Wednesday in Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and voted to condemn Burma for human rights violations, along with Haiti, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Sudan, Israel, and the former Yugoslavia. The move was initiated by the US.
The administration also may increase the Burmese-language broadcasts on the Voice of America to break the monopoly on media information held by the military government in Rangoon, now renamed Yangon.
``Our principal focus is to encourage dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime and to encourage her release,'' said the administration official.
``Small steps,'' such as permitting visits to prisoners by the International Committee for the Red Cross and the release of political prisoners ``would not go unnoticed,'' he said.
``But if they release a few prisoners, we won't send an ambassador'' to replace the one who left after the military canceled elections in 1991 that were won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, he added.
Last month, Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico became the first person other than her immediate family and her jailers to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.
But since then, Burmese military intelligence chief Lieut. Gen. Khin Nyunt has discounted the likelihood of a dialogue with her or her political party.