With Democracy Stifled in Burma, US Joins Its Asian Allies With Soft Reproach

After a week-long tour of East Asia by two American envoys, it seems clear that any international action to ease the standoff between democracy activists and the military-run Burmese government will take place on Asian terms - with lots of behind-the-scenes consensus-building.

Former United States Ambassador William Brown and a onetime member of the National Security Council, Stanley Roth, were careful at a weekend press conference here to emphasize that they came to explore "shared concerns" over Burma.

"We came to consult with friends and allies in the region as to how one might best deter a possible deterioration leading to violence and bloodshed in the area," Mr. Brown said.

The two Americans met with leaders in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. All but Japan are members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a group that has adopted a policy of "constructive engagement" toward Burma.

ASEAN members, said Brown, "are rightfully sensitive about the fact that they are a unique organization and that they have their own particular ways in achieving their objectives."

At the same time, Burma has become something of a cause clbre on American college campuses, and several members of Congress want a tough approach on Burma. The Burmese regime has been widely criticized for denying human rights.

But Asian officials and commentators have been quick to discourage Washington from a heavy-handed approach that they say would further isolate the Burmese government, which in recent years has been pursuing a policy of economic opening and free-market reforms after decades of stagnation.

There has been little movement to democratic government, as was highlighted late last month when the Burmese government detained 261 democracy activists. They were planning to attend a conference convened by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was released from six years of house arrest almost a year ago. The government has since released most of the detainees.

Ms. Suu Kyi has called for dialogue with the State Law and Order Reconciliation Council (SLORC), the military junta that calls the country Myanmar, but the regime has so far ignored her appeals.

Suu Kyi claims a mandate based on a 1991 election in which her party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats. The military refused to honor the results of the elections.

It is not clear that the Clinton administration is eager to take much of a stand on Burma, although Mr. Roth said the US "was prepared to take additional steps - bilateral, political, diplomatic, but possibly on the economic side as well" - if the situation were to deteriorate. Some American companies have taken advantage of Burma's economic opening, but the level of US investment is low compared with that of Asian countries.

Brown appeared to offer Burma something of a peace offering, praising what he called "some improvement on the question of forced labor in Burma." There are many Burmese exiles in Thailand, however, who would dispute his assertion. He also noted that the US and Asian countries are pushing for compromise, which he said "requires movement on more than one side."

In recent days Asian officials reportedly have suggested that Suu Kyi ought to alter her tactics and positions in order to reach an accommodation with the regime.

From ASEAN countries, as well, there are mixed signals. Thai officials, for example, were uncharacteristically critical of the detentions. Last week senior officials from ASEAN countries recommended that Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas visit Burma to express the group's concerns. "The ASEAN countries have come to an agreement that they are concerned about the present developments, which seems to be leading only to a showdown. We don't want to see that," said Saroj Chavanaviraj, deputy permanent secretary in Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an interview last week.

But Mr. Alatas refused to visit because of time constraints, according to Mr. Saroj. Nonetheless, the episode showed that ASEAN may gradually become more dynamic on political issues. As it is, ASEAN has a reputation for staying out of member countries' internal politics.

Perhaps the single most uncomfortable thing for ASEAN is China, whose military and economy are beginning to feel threatening to Southeast Asia. The Chinese have close relations with the Burmese regime, and analysts in Asia worry that alienating Burma could give China a close ally in Southeast Asia.

"SLORC can always play the China card," says Kei Nemoto, a Burma specialist at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. That is one reason ASEAN has been trying to draw Burma into its fold, and the regime has said it is interested in trying to join the group by the end of the century.

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