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

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."

Well, if the Burma leaders had any inclination "to do the right thing," we'd have heard about that decades ago. All of that presented a cacophony of conflicting approaches that emboldened the military dictators, enabling them to weather international scorn with hardly a worry. The same held true a year ago, when the Burmese government forbid international relief agencies from providing aid to thousands of people made homeless following cyclone Nargis. That brought on stronger sanctions and even louder excoriations. About that time, India worked out an agreement to give the Burmese generals $100 million for a waterway project.

In the last year, the situation has not improved. Early this year, Burma’s opposition party, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, acknowledged the obvious and said publicly that international sanctions were of no benefit to the country or its people.

Last week, after Burma arrested Suu Kyi for allowing John Yattaw, that odd American, to stay in her house for a day after he swum across a lake to see her, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Australia called for her release.

But, predictably, the nations that keep the junta in power, the enablers – China, India and Thailand – had nothing to say. With those trusty allies in the junta’s back pocket, all the ranting from the rest of the world means nothing. The ruling generals are proceeding with the trial. They will mete out whatever sentence they choose, free from worry or care. If anyone doubts the outcome, take note of the courts most recent act: forbidding the defendant to put her own witnesses on the stand.

When the Obama Administration finds time to conduct that Burma policy review, here’s an idea: Rather than haranguing the junta one day and then moving on when something more important inevitably comes up, why not call the various players in this debate – the United Nations, the European Union and Burma’s Asian neighbors – to an international conference. Maybe they could agree on a unified strategy. Maybe, under the Klieg lights and the skeptical gaze of a thousand reporters, China and India and Thailand might be shamed into doing the right thing.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Burma:

Ethnic Kachins defy Myanmar's junta

The wandering Rohingya

A cyclone's aftermath

More on North Korea:

North Korea's cries for attention

Opinion: Kim Jong Il's successor is (envelope please) ... Paek Se Bong!

All eyes on North Korea, for good reason

More by Joel Brinkley:

Why Eleanor Roosevelt is rolling over in her grave

Taliban poised to "take" Pakistan