US Sen Jim Webb recently traveled to Burma to lean not on Burma's military regime, but to pressure my country's democracy movement into giving up economic sanctions--the most important tool in our struggle for freedom.
Although he emphasized the necessity of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, this falls far short of the demands of the US, the United Nations and the European Union for the immediate and unconditional release of all my country's 2,100 political prisoners.
Webb's ignorance of the situation in my country was revealed his book "A Time to Fight" in which he came down squarely on the side of the oppressors in Burma. He wrote about the demonstrations which took place in Burma in 2007, led by Buddhist monks such as myself.
"If Westerners had remained in the country this moment might never have occurred, because it is entirely possible that conditions may have improved rather than deteriorated."
Webb's statement is either shockingly naïve or willfully misleading. We Buddhist monks, who Webb discounts as a "throng," marched for an end to military dictatorship in Burma not because we wanted marginal improvements in our economy. We marched because we believe in freedom and democracy and are willing to make sacrifices to reach those goals.
Webb claims that the Burmese people would benefit from interaction with the outside world, as if we need to be condescendingly "taught" by Americans about our rights and responsibilities. Had Webb spent some time with real Burmese people apart from the military regime and others who share his views, he would better understand the sacrifice we made for democracy, and he would know that we Burmese value the longstanding support we have had from the US Congress.
Webb, an author, has proven extremely manipulative in his use of language, calling for "engagement" and "interaction" instead of sanctions. His implication is that the Burmese people are solely set on sanctions and confrontation--the exact same language used by Burma's military regime, which couldn't be further from the truth. The truth is that the world is not as black and white as Webb would have it. We want the United States to talk to and negotiate with Burma's military regime, but this shouldn't preclude increasing international pressure. The US appears to be able to carry out this policy with other countries such as in North Korea where it is willing to talk to the North Koreans while at the same time increasing sanctions if Pyongyang doesn't respond. Webb is intent on driving a wedge into this process in the case of Burma. We must choose, he explains, between sanctions and engagement--there can be no sophisticated strategy, only complete involvement or none at all.
What Webb proposes--lifting sanctions on Burma--translates to basically handing over the Burmese peoples' natural resources to rapacious multinational corporations, particularly Big Oil. If the US lifts sanctions on Burma, there will be a rush of companies into Burma intent on looting my country's natural heritage and the benefits of such "engagement" will flow directly to the military regime.
In terms of human rights, Webb has remained focused only on Suu Kyi's freedom and ability to participate in scheduled elections in Burma, never mind the fact that the Burmese regime has already rigged the elections so that no matter who participates there will be many more decades of complete military rule.
The new constitution is an air-tight document that gives no room whatsoever for reform from within. At the same time, Webb has completely ignored the purposeful, massive human rights violations carried out by Burma's military regime. The human rights nightmare in Burma includes the recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers, pressing hundreds of thousands of Burmese into forced labor and the widespread rape of ethnic minority women.
Luckily for the Burmese people, Webb is not the only US senator. Recently, the US Senate voted unanimously to extend sanctions on Burma. President Obama signed the bill into law.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a student of politics and more likely to examine the facts on the ground instead of falling for blanket ideological generalizations. While Webb may seek to sell out Aung San Suu Kyi, our courageous Buddhist monks, and all the people of Burma, we hold out hope that Secretary Clinton and President Obama will take a more nuanced view in formulating policy toward Burma.
In particular, the US should seek to negotiate with Burma's military regime--but, at the same time, carry forward along the lines of the advice offered by South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu: seek a global arms embargo on Burma's military regime, start a UN Security Council investigation into crimes against humanity committed by the regime, and begin the process to full implementation of financial sanctions against the regime and its cronies.
Webb is now despised by the people of Burma. If he succeeds in achieving a shift in US policy to abandon sanctions, he will have secured his place in history as one of the most important supporters of Than Swe's military dictatorship.
Article first published on Irrawaddy