US Slowly Loses Fight to Isolate Regime Over Rights Abuses

IN the battle for global acceptance, Burma appears to be winning a war of attrition.

The government has been adept at moving from its pariah status of six years ago, when it brutally repressed pro-democracy protests, to a country gaining recognition from its harshest critic, the United States.

The US led the West and many other nations to cut economic and political ties to Burma in hopes of forcing reform. But slowly, the effort crumpled as Asian nations put trade with resource-rich Burma ahead of human rights. The West, meanwhile, tried to hold firm.

When more savvy generals took over the ruling body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), in 1992 and released some political prisoners, one European country after another started dealing with Burma. ``The US felt left out in the cold ... [it] felt it was in an untenable position,'' says Michael Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch/Asia.

SLORC appeared to be responding to this softer approach, some believe. Twice since September, two SLORC leaders met with Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's leading dissident who had been under house arrest since 1989.

So, last November, when US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Hubbard arrived to conduct meetings with SLORC, observers watched for a softening in US policy. Mr. Hubbard's message was that there were ``two visions of the future relationship'' between Burma and the US - a dark one if Burma did not make progress in human rights, democratization, and narcotics control, and a brighter one if it did. But the final impression, says one Burma activist in Rangoon, ``was that all the emphasis was on the carrots and not the sticks.''

Critics wonder why the US has failed to support Burma's democracy movement with the same vigor it showed in Haiti and in the Philippines. The reason, one administration official notes, is that the US has few interests in the Asian nation. Unlike the Philippines, there is no prior US involvement, and unlike nearby Haiti, events in a country halfway around the world present no threat to US security. And economically, Burma is a faint blip on the US radar screen: Only a few companies have opened operations there.

The most pressing US interest lies in controlling the nearly 70 percent of world opium and heroin that comes out of Burma. A struggle within the US government persists over whether to continue isolating SLORC or work with it in curbing drug production. With SLORC meeting with Ms. Suu Kyi, those who want to work with the generals are finding it easier to make a case.

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