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Opinion: Forget Kim Jong Il. The harder problem is Burma

Why Washington is powerless to help Aung San Suu Kyi.

A Myanmar national holds a portrait of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest outside the Myanmar embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 27, 2009. Some 60 activists demonstrated outside the embassy to urge the Myanmar government to release the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Chor Sokunthea/Reuters)

If they stop to think about it, Obama administration officials and other Western leaders might see a glimmer of positive news in the North Korean nuclear test last week. The problem takes attention away from the show trial in Burma, the latest manifestation of a problem as intractable as any in the world.

When Burma’s military put Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on trial last week, for harboring a wandering American in her home for a day, on came the ritualistic denunciations of the junta and the calls for harsher penalties. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Suu Kyi's trial “outrageous,” while Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, suggested new sanctions.

“It's not the moment to lower sanctions,” he proclaimed. "It's the moment to increase them.” That has been tried more than once before over the last 20 years. Every time, it has failed. The Burmese generals remain unchallenged, unmoved. Clinton acknowledged as much in February, when she said, “We are conducting a review of our policy. We are looking at what steps we could take that might influence the current government.”

But the United States has no other leverage. To understand why sanctions cannot work, consider what happened in the fall of 2007, when the Burmese junta crushed the monks’ pro-democracy demonstrations with arrests and shootings.

On clandestine radio and internet broadcasts, Burma democracy advocates pleaded with the world for help. Next door in New Delhi just then, while soldiers were torturing and killing monks, the Indian government proclaimed that Burma remained "a close and friendly neighbor" and dispatched its petroleum minister there to make a deal. He signed a three-year energy exploration agreement that fed cash to the junta.

India was not the only villain. China was selling arms to the Burmese military and buying natural gas. Thailand was paying the military dictators $2.8 billion a year for natural gas. Singapore maintained what one expert calls “an intimate engagement with the regime” and remained the favored shopping destination for the dictators and their families. Burma's state-owned oil company was pumping natural gas for the junta. So was Chevron, the American oil company. It enjoyed a grandfather exemption from American sanctions because it had been operating there for so long.

International dysfunction ran even deeper. While the Bush Administration ratcheted up sanctions, the United Nations promoted closer engagement — and chose to Burma by the dictators' favored name, Myanmar. Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. envoy to the country, suggested that “a combination of strong encouragement of the authorities in Myanmar to do the right thing along with some incentives" would show that "the world is not there to just punish Myanmar."