The great game over Burma

As Burma's erstwhile ally, China needs international pressure to end the military's harsh rule.

China and the US are budding partners in Asia – aside from their usual rivalry – after they forced North Korea to partially relent on its nuclear ambitions. Now they should work jointly on another repressive regime, Burma's junta, and free the world's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

This weekend, President Bush plans to press the US case for political freedom in Burma with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, at the annual summit of Asian-Pacific nations in Australia. He's not alone in this effort. First lady Laura Bush, who rarely speaks out on world issues, called the UN secretary-general last month to ask that he not remain silent about Burma's recent crackdown on dissidents and that he push for Security Council action.

The time is ripe for change in this Southeast Asian country, despite 45 years of military rule. On Aug. 19, the regime was forced by its bumbling policies to raise prices on fuel by up to 500 percent. For a people already racked by poverty and inflation, the higher prices slice deep. The political damage was particularly acute because Burma (also known as Myanmar) exports natural gas to Thailand.

And despite the government's harsh repression, a number of protests against the fuel hikes were held in big cities, with dozens of arrests adding to the more than 1,000 political dissidents already in jail.

History has a lesson here.

In 1988, a similar economic jolt led to protests that forced the military to hold an election. After Ms. Suu Kyi's party won, however, the election was annulled. Since then, this daughter of modern Burma's founder, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has spent most of the time under house arrest. The regime has since tried to appease foreign critics by drafting principles for elected government. But the long process is largely seen as a sham to keep military rule.

Meanwhile, conditions in Burma have become so bad that the International Committee of the Red Cross criticized the regime for "immense suffering for thousands of people," breaking its usual silence about the governments it works with.

Last January, the US was able to force a UN Security Council vote on a resolution that cited Burma's threat to regional security. But Russia and China vetoed it, a sign of big-power rivalry over this nation of 52 million people. Along with India, Russia and China have a rising stake in Burma's resources and ports. China, however, is Burma's erstwhile big ally, and deserves the most international pressure to show leadership by forcing the generals to relinquish power.

China did act and set up talks between the US and Burmese officials in June, but little came of it. By contrast, the China-hosted US talks with North Korea eventually did produce results but only because the US is a major player on the Korean peninsula. China, however, is the dominant foreign force in Burma and is seeking global respectability. With more than a million Chinese entrepreneurs in Burma and with hopes of using Burmese ports for easier shipping, Beijing can't afford instability in its southern neighbor.

The road to Burmese freedom won't be easy. But both China and the US have a stake in at least ending the military's grip on one of the world's poorest countries.

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