Beneath Burma's Jurassic shell

Burma remains the odd-fashioned dictatorship I remember from a few years ago.

Upon arrival every foreigner is forced to buy $200 worth of Monopoly-money coupons, which is a Burmese way of ducking the dollarization in the tourist sector.

Then come the ubiquitous red government billboards - some in English, some in Burmese - listing so-called "People's Desire," such as, "Oppose those relying on external elements acting as stooges, holding negative views."

To help visitors hold only positive views of Burma (renamed Myanmar), hotels supply them with the daily "New Light of Myanmar," which makes good old "Pravda" read like "Cosmopolitan." Few alternative sources of information exist: no Internet access, foreign papers only in a few hotels, satellite dishes banned until last year.

But beneath the Jurassic shell, the situation here has changed subtly in the past few years. So it may be time for the West to reexamine its approach to this endearing country and its distasteful generals. Little data are available, but the few known facts are staggering: In 2000 the World Health Organization ranked Burma 190th of 191 countries on health-care delivery; the agency UNAIDS says that 1 million Burmese out of 40 million are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.

The reasons for Burma's humanitarian challenges are incompetence and mismanagement by a military junta, but it does not help that Burma is receiving very little overseas development aid - in 1997, $1 per capita as compared with $35 per capita in Cambodia or $68 in Laos.

Indeed, ever since the protests that culminated on 8/8/88, when the Burmese people under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi rejected the 26-year-old military regime, the West's approach to Burma has been simple: minimal aid and a trade boycott aimed at forcing the regime to relinquish power and discouraging tourism.

Two years later, this policy was reinforced when the democratic opposition took 82 percent of the seats in an election that the junta called for, deluded about its own popularity.

This was more than 10 years ago. Since then, the generals have not given up one inch of power. Their human rights record is still abysmal; Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

So why should the West reexamine its approach? One reason is that the current tack does not seem effective enough. Nobody is calling for a softening of the trade boycott: It should and will be maintained, perhaps even made tougher, but it alone cannot bring democracy to Burma. The junta still managed to find enough cash last year to buy 10 Mig-29 fighters from Russia for $130 million, and this year added a nuclear reactor to the shopping cart.

However, the boycott and the West's ostracism may have prompted the junta to open talks with Aung San Suu Kyi. These talks, which started in October 2000, are another reason for the West to reexamine its policy toward Burma, because the opposition, too, is reassessing its tactics. (My Burmese friends point to the overthrow of two dictators - Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Indonesia's Suharto - to explain why the junta is now willing to speak with its arch-enemy.)

The third reason to reexamine Western policy toward Burma is concern for the physical and intellectual survival of the people, endangered by falling living standards. Furthermore, if the Afghanistan experience has offered any lesson, it is that when a country hits bottom, it may become prey to scourges whose effects go beyond its borders. (For starters, Burma has overtaken Afghanistan as an opium producer and exporter in recent years.)

If one listens to the foreign non-governmental organizations, the international government agencies working here, and to the Burmese people in Burma, one must conclude that there can and ought to be a significant increase in humanitarian aid to Burma. However, this is a maverick idea likely to provoke many a frown or raised eyebrow.

The arguments against more humanitarian aid are well known. Chief among them is that Aung San Suu Kyi herself has opposed aid in the past. But recently "The Lady" has been privately suggesting that, with the right oversight, humanitarian aid is welcome. She cannot openly call for it, because she might undermine or distract from the larger goal of restoring democracy.

The other arguments against humanitarian aid for Burma are that it will legitimatize the dictators' illegal hold on power; it will be diverted or stolen; it will reward fake local nongovernmental organizations involved in its distribution. Those arguments are valid in all similar situations. But strict oversight, well-defined rules of operation, and a strong information campaign about the sources and objectives of the aid may minimize the damage.

All international nongovernmental groups have had to weigh carefully the pros and cons of working here. They have all responded with a definite yes.

What's more, last June eight UN agencies working in Burma announced that the country is "on the brink of a humanitarian crisis" and asked for "a dramatic overhaul of budget allocation" to Burma because "the nature and magnitude of the humanitarian situation does not permit delaying until the political situation evolves."

And what do the people of Burma think? The vox pop. cannot be read publicly. Overzealous censorship screens every printed word, even calendars and food wrappings. But asked privately, dissidents who respect Ms. Suu Kyi all say that humanitarian aid should be increased.

I will be clear: Proponents (both Burmese and non-Burmese) of increased humanitarian aid do not suggest abandoning the political battle for the restoration of democracy. But as an expert on HIV/AIDS who worked here put it: "The stick does not work. The international community has a moral duty to the people of the country to try the carrot."

• Anna Husarska is a Paris-based journalist and political analyst.

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