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Opinion: Burma's minorities must not be overlooked

Before there's more dialogue with General Than Shwe, human rights abuses against ethnic minorities must cease.

The merciless head of Burma’s military junta will not brook a second defeat at the polls next year. He has hence stepped-up militarization this past year resulting in forced relocation and attendant rights abuses. Than Shwe’s Tatmadaw has locked up 2,200 political prisoners, destroyed more than 3,200 villages and forced up to 3 million civilians to flee — all of which make it nearly impossible for the NLD and other political parties to organize prior to upcoming elections.

President Obama has recently embarked on a new policy of engagement with the Burmese military claiming targeted sanctions have failed to reform the repressive regime. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell met this month in the capital city Naypyidaw with his Burmese counterpart in a second round of dialogue, which began this September in New York. And Obama himself met recently with ASEAN leaders, including Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein, in Singapore.

For such diplomatic initiatives to succeed, the Obama administration must establish benchmarks and present credible consequences should its new strategy of engagement fail to produce movement toward real political change within Burma. The minimum price for continued dialogue should be the unconditional release of all political prisoners and the immediate cessation of rights abuses against ethnic minorities — without which there can be neither free nor fair elections in 2010.

By meeting with the Americans, Than Shwe has already procured what he craves most — international legitimacy — and revoking it is perhaps the best hope for a shift in Burma. If these series of high-level diplomatic talks do not result in any significant positive change by the military junta, the United States should fully implement tougher sanctions already allowed by the 2008 Burmese JADE Act and press the U.N. Security Council to launch a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma.

Burma’s military regime has maintained its intransigence for decades in the face of outside demands for change. As the United States tries to alter that posture, it must not forsake justice and accountability for toothless diplomatic engagement.

Richard Sollom is Director of Research and Investigations at Physicians for Human Rights in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he directs public health research and human rights investigations in areas of armed conflict.