A symbolic US crackdown on Burma

When I was a correspondent covering Asia in the '60's, three countries resisted my efforts - and those of other Western correspondents - to visit.

Despite cables I sent monthly for six years to Beijing asking to let me report on the then-closed country of China, there was never a response. Similar monthly cables to Hanoi produced no visa to enter North Vietnam, but an occasional cable in response blasting US policy and actions in South Vietnam. The third inhospitable country I was trying to get into was Burma, run by a paranoid military junta that kept its country sealed off from most of the world - especially from inquiring reporters. After much effort, I got a visa for my one and only trip to Rangoon under highly regulated conditions.

The visit didn't produce great reporting. I wrote about what I could see of a poor, backward land under tight military control. I recorded the comments of unhappy, but cautious, Burmese. I talked with diplomats, themselves limited to what they could do and see. Government officials were available to track my sources but not provide information. Finally, I did manage to hire a Jeep and slip away for an overnight visit to Pagan, a place of wondrous temples and ruins, which enabled me to see something of the country outside the capital. When I returned to Rangoon, I hadn't been in my hotel room five minutes when the phone rang. It was my government contact, a colonel in the Information Ministry.

"I just got back from a wonderful visit to Pagan," I told him proudly.

"We know that, Mr. Hughes," replied the colonel solemnly. "We know where you are all the time."

It is a wonder that in all the years since, Burma - now also known as Myanmar - has continued to be able to keep the world at bay while repressing the most slender shoots of democracy and establishing one of the most dismal human rights records of any country in the world.

But at last, the US is turning a spotlight on Burma. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal last week, "It is time to reassess our policy toward a military dictatorship that has repeatedly attacked democracy and jailed its heroes."

Burma has no known weapons of mass destruction. It's not known to harbor any Al Qaeda cells. It has no great strategic importance to the US. There is no diplomatic capital to be made from rousting the Burmese junta. But it has triggered official US ire simply because of the abominable way it treats human beings. That's a response in which Americans can all take pride.

The catalyst for the new US action was a brutal attack earlier this month on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her political lieutenants as her motorcade traveled in the northern part of the country. Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has spent much of the past 14 years under house arrest for her pro-democracy views. A year ago, the regime freed her to travel within the country, in a bid to stifle international criticism and pressure. The government promised talks to discuss opening the political system, but these haven't been forthcoming. The attack on Suu Kyi, her placement anew in "protective custody," and a crackdown on her pro-democracy supporters suggest that hopes for any reform initiated voluntarily by the junta are in vain.

Mr. Powell's strong language suggests that the US is about to increase pressure on the Rangoon regime. Junta officials are currently barred from visiting the US. The Bush administration has voted against loans to Burma from the World Bank and other international financial institutions. Now the White House and Congress are collaborating on measures that would bar imports from Burma and freeze its government's assets in the US.

Just how well such sanctions bite remains to be seen, because Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors continue to trade with it. But what the US is doing will certainly have symbolic significance. It signals to foreign corporations that investment in Burma may not be a productive venture. And it's a strong signal to the generals who rule the country that their long reign of repression is no longer unnoticed by the outside world.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the Communist coup attempt in Indonesia in 1965 and the ensuing purge.

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