What Burma needs from the White House

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Monday, 20 April, 2009

Desmond Tutu argues that while the Obama administration has done much to regain America's moral standing internationally, the world is still waiting for it to show moral leadership in the struggle for human rights and justice in Burma. This article first appeared in The Washington Post.


When President Obama was elected, I was filled with hope that America would regain the moral standing to aid those who are impoverished and oppressed around the world. I have since rejoiced to see him reversing the most obnoxious policies of the Bush administration - by ending torture, announcing the closure of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay and engaging the world on climate change, to name just a few. But there is another issue on which America's moral leadership is desperately needed, and here, it must be acknowledged, President Bush was on the side of the angels: the struggle for human rights and justice in Burma.

Last year, when a cyclone struck Burma, we watched in horror as the country's military government refused offers of help to save thousands of people clinging to survival. Not everyone noticed what the government was focused on in those terrible days - a referendum to ratify a new constitution, designed to entrench its rule forever. As villagers in affected areas fought to stay alive and the rest of the country anguished over their fate, the government mobilised its forces not for rescue but to herd people to the polls. Of course, this was not a real referendum; it was illegal for any Burmese to urge a "no" vote, and the results were rigged in any case. But it was a real manifestation of the heartlessness of those who rule Burma.

Now the Obama administration is reviewing America's policy towards Burma. A thoughtful review is needed; as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said, neither economic pressure nor diplomacy has yet achieved the change we seek in Burma. It stands to reason that every aspect of U.S. engagement with this country needs to be made more effective, more targeted and more broadly supported by key countries around the world. But as we wait for the results of this thought process, as America's allies wait, as the United Nations waits, as the Burmese people wait, we should remember that the Burmese government is not waiting. Each day, it moves a step closer to its goal of eliminating opposition and consolidating power, with another stage-managed "election" looming in 2010. The administration does not have the luxury of considering its options and then starting to lead; it must somehow think and lead at the same time, before it loses the initiative, and misimpressions about where it stands spread.

As the administration reviews its policy, I hope it will remember that the voices of those with the most at stake cannot easily be heard. My sister Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic and beloved leader of the Burmese democracy movement, remains under house arrest and cannot speak to the world. In recent months, hundreds of prominent activists, Buddhist monks and nuns, journalists, labour activists, and bloggers who want the world to maintain pressure on their government have been sentenced to years, even decades, in isolated jungle prisons, where not even their families can visit. Meanwhile, those who support or have resigned themselves to their government's approach are free to speak out. This repression cannot be rewarded; the voices of those it has silenced must be heard as if the walls of their jails did not exist.

I hope that the Obama administration will energise global diplomacy on Burma. It should be willing to talk to Burma's leaders, to work intensively with Burma's neighbours and to make clear that there is a dignified way forward for all those in Burma who are willing to compromise. It should support carefully monitored humanitarian assistance directed to help Burma's people, so aid reaches them and does not reinforce corruption or result in other unintended consequences.

So yes - America should engage Burma, but it should not engage in wishful thinking. Nothing in our experience suggests that offers of aid will cause Burma's generals to change course; unlike some authoritarian regimes, this one seems to care not a bit for the economic well being of its country. It would probably interpret an easing of sanctions as an acknowledgment that it has won the struggle with its people and proved its right to rule. Indeed, all our experience suggests that diplomatic engagement is likely to succeed only when sanctions have truly hit their mark. In South Africa, it was only when sanctions became targeted and were implemented in a sophisticated way that a negotiated solution - one that seemed impossible for many long years - finally took shape.

Injustice and oppression will not have the last word in Burma (or Zimbabwe, or Sudan), any more than they did in South Africa, Poland, Chile or anywhere else the human spirit is alive. The brave Burmese people who have struggled for their freedom believe this is a moral universe, where right and wrong still matter. They need to know that the world's most powerful democracy still believes it, too.

The writer is Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

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