President Clinton was right to sharply criticize the junta that governs Burma (called Myanmar by its steely military rulers). In Thailand, Mr. Clinton accused the junta of profiting from drug smuggling. Official US sanctions, or a selective boycott, are possible policy options for Washington.
Forty-five million Burmese have long been denied civil liberties and human rights by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a harsh military junta that annulled the democratic elections of 1990 and resists all efforts to send it back to the barracks. Television and print journalists have filmed and written accounts of SLORC's persistent use of compulsory labor, including forced child labor, to construct roads, gas pipelines, and other projects.
Burma remains with Afghanistan the poorest country in Asia. Most of the military commanders of SLORC, however, flaunt their wealth, some of it derived from heroin and opium trafficking.
Congressional legislation passed in September permits Mr. Clinton to ban American investment in Burma if there is "large-scale repression" or if Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist whose party was barred from office when the military annulled a 1990 election, is harmed physically. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and others want more, and have called for broad-based US sanctions to pressure the junta to ease Burma back toward participatory government. Ms. Suu Kyi favors sanctions.
SLORC seeks to be accepted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This is its most cherished foreign policy goal. Until SLORC's recent excesses, further repressing Suu Kyi's democracy movement, it appeared that Indonesia and Singapore would help bring SLORC in from the cold. This month, several ASEAN leaders spoke more cautiously. Clinton needs to reiterate that his Asian counterparts must reward only positive moves by SLORC.
Easing up on Burma's dictators would undermine Suu Kyi's staunch defense of democracy and popular rule. Similarly, public support by Clinton for Suu Kyi would strengthen the resolve of her embattled followers.
Short of outright sanctions, one new pressure point on SLORC (already introduced in a number of US states and cities) is to deny Burma many international trading opportunities and thus limit the often illicit extra incomes of members of the military junta. By executive order, Clinton could prevent federal agencies from buying products from companies (domestic or foreign) that continue to do business in Burma. Already, several Japanese concerns have withdrawn from Burma because of such state purchasing guidelines.
Burma has been ruled militarily since 1962, but conditions turned particularly desperate after the soldiers killed thousands of innocent civilians, especially protesting students and Buddhist monks, in 1988. Suu Kyi, the foreign-educated daughter of Aung San, Burma's anti-colonial liberator (assassinated in 1947) and first democratic leader, vaulted to national leadership by popular acclaim during those protests.
She formed the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won an overwhelming electoral victory in 1990. But SLORC refused to recognize the results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for six years, until July 1995.
In September 1996, the junta prevented the NLD from meeting. Since then, Suu Kyi and her party's members have been harassed systematically. On weekends she has been prevented from addressing her supporters, as was customary, outside her house on University Avenue in Rangoon. On one recent weekend, thugs paid by SLORC set upon her car and another car carrying U Kyi Maung and Tin Oo, Suu Kyi's principal associates. Tin Oo was slightly injured. Burma-based US diplomats lodged stern official protests, but anti-NLD thugs nevertheless roamed the streets of Rangoon the following day. Pedestrians and traffic have been blocked from the street that runs by her residence.
At a press conference held by Suu Kyi before SLORC set up barriers, she promised to react "politely" to any civil overtures from SLORC. Her movement, she said, was as ready for a meaningful dialogue with SLORC as it always had been.
Suu Kyi's determination
In a private meeting after the press conference, she spoke of her determination to bring democracy to Burma, however long it took. She said her people's cause was just, and that she was the instrument of their liberation. She was renewed, she mused, by the sacrifices and backing of her supporters. Neutral observers all report that her immense heroic appeal to the people of Burma is undiminished.
Bans on American investment in Burma would primarily affect several large oil companies drilling off the country's coasts. It would also remove the last of the US concerns that purchase textiles and clothing stitched in Burma. For sanctions to have a maximum effect, however, European (French and British), Japanese, Chinese, and ASEAN investment in Burma would have to be stanched. Foreign teak loggers and narcotics purveyors would also have to participate, a most unlikely notion.
For those reasons, and because the record of sanctions successfully changing ruling policies anywhere is decidedly mixed, selective purchasing bans may be a better approach to the Burmese political problem. Even an official buying boycott, however, may prove too indirect to pressure the SLORC dictatorship.
At the very least, Clinton and ASEAN leaders should continue to condemn SLORC's treatment of Burma's people, of Aung San Suu Kyi, and of democracy. Remote as Burma is geographically from the United States, the world's most powerful nation can and should make a difference there.
*Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., and research associate of the Harvard Institute for International Development.