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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 22:31 GMT 23:31 UK
Dilemma of dealing with Burma
By William Horsley
BBC

The outside world seems at a loss over how to deal with Burma's strongmen.

Rangoon Yangon Shrines encircle the Schwedagon Pagoda, Burma (file photo)
Pro-democracy campaigners are shocked by the political changes
The latest political shake-up in Rangoon has strengthened hardliners and damaged prospects for democratic reform.

Western experts on Burma believe the head of its military junta, Than Shwe, removed Prime Minister Khin Nyunt as part of an internal power feud, to forestall any challenge to his own rule.

Burmese pro-democracy campaigners are shocked.

They say the man appointed to be the next prime minister, Soe Win, is a hardliner who master-minded the violent attack last year on pro-democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

Shadowy path?

British officials say the latest moves take Burma another step away from the democratic reforms which the regime has promised.

US state department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "These events do not point in the direction of allowing freedom of exercise of political and human rights."

Many experts fear the new power line-up in Rangoon may spell a new phase of repression in Burma.

Khin Nyunt, who is being accused of corruption, at least paid lip service to the idea that Burma would in time release Aung Sang Suu Kyi from house arrest and return the country to civilian rule.

KHIN NYUNT'S POSITION
Number three in junta hierarchy
Appointed Prime Minister in 2003, in perceived demotion
Sponsored "roadmap" for democracy and freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi
But power struggle with senior leader Than Shwe hampered progress

The events also appear to be an embarrassment to the 37 Asian and European leaders who sat down with a Burmese government delegation during the Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit meeting in Hanoi earlier this month.

A statement agreed by all the ASEM leaders said they looked forward to Burma fulfilling its promises of democratic reform as soon as possible.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the European Commission President Romano Prodi were among those who insisted on the benefits of dialogue.

New sanctions

But international human rights advocates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, criticised the European position.

"The words of protest at Aung Sang Suu Kyi's detention ring hollow when they do not translate into action," he said.

The Burmese delegation was obliged to limit itself to ministerial level at the Hanoi meeting, as a token of European disapproval.

Burma's new Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt
Khin Nyunt 'resigned for health reasons', state media said
But the EU also compromised its principle of refusing all high-level contacts with Rangoon.

The Hanoi meeting was the first time that government heads from European Union countries had agreed to meet face to face with members of the Burmese junta.

There were harsh exchanges, and just two days later the 25 EU states formally announced they would extend their sanctions on Burma's generals, to ban any new investments in Burmese state-owned firms.

But international critics say those new sanctions are full of loopholes.

French President Jacques Chirac seemed to cast doubt on their effectiveness, saying he hoped the EU's sanctions policy would not damage the operations of the French oil firm Total, which has large investments in Burma.

The EU has promised to increase humanitarian and civilian assistance to Burma, especially in the fields of health and education.

But European diplomats acknowledge their options for influencing events in Burma are running low.

Intransigence

Leaders of Asean (the Association of South East Asian Nations) face some more direct and immediate choices.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said this week that he still hoped Burma's "roadmap to democracy" would not be adversely affected.

But some independent voices in the media and think-tanks of South East Asia now say it is time for Asean to end its policy of non-interference in members' internal affairs, and suspend Burmese membership.

The dilemma was summed up by Bernard Bot, the foreign minister of the Netherlands, which now holds the presidency of the European Union.

Writing about the ASEM summit, he said Europeans should see the relationship with Asia as more than "a zero-sum choice between human rights and trade".

The intransigence of Burma's army generals has made it harder than ever for other countries to support the people of Burma without further diluting their much-publicised "European values", especially regarding human rights.




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