By MITCH MCCONNELL
Despite its rich culture and fertile lands, today Burma is synonymous with repression, rape and poverty.
Under an abusive military junta, misleadingly named the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the country is in economic and social ruin. Endemic corruption and mismanagement of the economy by the junta makes it difficult for the average Burmese to scrape together even the most basic living wage.
The SPDC invests little in the country's youth, spending 1.2% of its gross domestic product on education -- only slightly higher than Sierra Leone. It does not provide adequate health care for even the most routine ailments, let alone an exploding HIV/AIDS infection rate that ravages the young and old alike in Burma. By some estimates, the junta spent only $40,000 on HIV/AIDS programs last year. They spent over 10 times that amount on Washington lobbyists this year.
Worse, the SPDC razes entire villages, murders ethnic minorities, and uses rape as a weapon of war. Children are pressed into the military, and civilians forced into labor. The junta has laid out the welcome mat for major drug dealers and their money, who find haven and friendship in Rangoon.
To be a citizen of Myanmar -- as the generals call the mess they created -- is to be oppressed and disadvantaged. But amidst all the bleakness are rays of hope.
For over a decade, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have been struggling for freedom and the rule of law. In 1990, Ms. Suu Kyi led the NLD to an overwhelming electoral victory that the junta refuses to respect to this day. Instead, they placed Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest and detained, tortured, and murdered NLD supporters.
Released from a second time under house arrest only last year, Ms. Suu Kyi was traveling in the countryside on May 30 when her convoy was ambushed by SPDC goons. They murdered at least four of her supporters, and injured scores of others. An undetermined number of democrats, including Ms. Suu Kyi, were arrested by the junta and continue to be held in undisclosed locations. The outcry in Washington and other foreign capitals was immediate and forceful. In addition to firm words, the United States expanded its visa ban and sent its diplomats in the region to foreign ministries to marshal support for democracy in Burma. Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote in a recent op-ed for The Asian Wall Street Journal that "the time has come to turn up the pressure on the SPDC."
The U.S. Senate considered and passed legislation on Burma by a vote of 97-1 that did just that. The vote was an overwhelming and unprecedented expression of support for Burma's democrats. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 imposes an import ban on Burma, expands the visa ban, freezes assets of the SPDC in the United States and provides additional support to democrats struggling for freedom in that country.
Sanctions can be an effective modifier of repressive behavior in Burma, and we already know that the junta responds to outside pressure and condemnation. In response to being branded a pariah state by America and Europe, the SPDC released Ms. Suu Kyi from house arrest last year and permitted her to travel throughout the country. Seeking a more favorable public image, the generals in Rangoon made much noise, but absolutely no progress, in dialogue with Ms. Suu Kyi and NLD.
More recently, following the crackdown on democracy, U.N. Special Envoy Razali Ismail was given a 15-minute meeting with Ms. Suu Kyi that confirmed to an outraged world that she was alive. If the SPDC was truly immune to world public opinion, Mr. Razali would have left Burma empty-handed.
Just like apartheid in South Africa, SPDC injustices are morally reprehensible and quickly spark global condemnation. Like communism in Poland, the junta's policies are a yoke of oppression instilling fear instead of loyalty among the masses. And like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Ms. Suu Kyi offers hope to millions of Burmese yearning to be free.
For sanctions to bite in Burma, the resolve for political change must be secured from Burma's trading partners, particularly those in the region. The junta's relationship with China, India, Japan and Thailand pose challenges in creating a united front against the SPDC. America must engage these countries on Burma -- as U.S. President George W. Bush did during Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's recent visit to Washington. Burma must remain on the U.S. State Department's agenda well beyond the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia this week.
America's mission -- along with its European and regional allies -- should be to forcefully engage those who do business with the SPDC in order that they better understand the value of a free Burma to the entire region. Burma's most potent exports to the region are undesirable: HIV/AIDS to China, drugs to Thailand and refugees to India. Economic engagement sustains lawlessness in Rangoon.
It is time to treat the disease in Burma rather than its symptoms. Sanctions may be a bitter pill for many Asean nations to swallow, but the alternative is to prolong the misery of the Burmese people and havoc beyond Burma's borders.
America's leadership is essential to bring about the necessary conditions for political change, namely: pressure, persistence and patience. Absent the political will of free nations to hold the SPDC accountable for its action, the regime in Rangoon will literally get away with murder.
There are some who worry that sanctions will hurt the very people they are supposed to help. In Burma, sanctions will not rape ethnic girls and women or murder their brothers, husbands and sons. They will not profit from an illicit narcotics trade that wreaks havoc among the region's youth, nor will they attack peaceful supporters of Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD.
A ban on imports to the United States will impact a negligible percentage of Burma's population. It will, however, deny the junta the ability to export some $350 million to $470 million worth of goods to the U.S. A ban will hit the SPDC where it hurts most -- in the pocketbook and its public image.
Finally, some are worried that the SPDC may challenge sanctions in the World Trade Organization (WTO). We should expect and welcome such action. The SPDC is not known for its respect of the rule of law, and in the process of a challenge it might learn a thing or two. Further, a WTO platform will further highlight the many abuses of the junta against the people of Burma. To know the SPDC is to despise them.
As long as Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD and all the people of Burma have the courage to continue the struggle for democracy in Burma, the world must have the political will to help them win it.
*Senator McConnell is the majority whip in the U.S. Senate and chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriation Subcommittee.