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29 September 2003

Lugar Sees Need to Turn Burma from Its "Dangerous Course"

Op-ed column by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman

(This byliner by Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican senator from Indiana and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, first appeared in the Washington Post September 28 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)

(begin byliner)

Seeds of Trouble From Burma
By Richard G. Lugar

(Richard G. Lugar is a Republican U.S. Senator from Indiana.)

The military junta that rules Burma has long been known as a group committed to retaining power at any cost. The price has been paid mainly by Burma's citizens, but the consequences may now spread well beyond Burma's borders.

The generals have killed thousands of democracy supporters since the student protests in 1988 and waged war on ethnic insurgents. To tighten their grip on the population, over the past 15 years they have doubled the size of the military, which now consumes 40 percent of the budget, at the expense of spending on health and education.

Consequently, hundreds of thousands of their citizens have died as a result of the broken-down health care system. The generals who run the country are notorious for their widespread use of forced labor, which the International Labor Organization calls "a contemporary form of slavery."

The junta has maintained these abhorrent policies despite sanctions, aid cutoffs and repeated denunciations by many Western countries, including the United States.

Yet it makes the headlines only when it commits an especially acute outrage, such as that of last May 30, when pro-government militia crashed a political rally near Mandalay and murdered several bodyguards and supporters of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the fearless democracy crusader who had been freed only last year from a lengthy house arrest.

The junta rearrested Suu Kyi, shut down offices of her political party and detained her at a secret location. She returned home Friday for a new stint of indefinite house arrest.

I am pleased that the Senate reacted quickly in June to put pressure on the junta by voting for a ban on all Burmese imports. Until now this record of bloody repression and economic ruin has primarily victimized the long-suffering Burmese people, and world attention has often drifted away from what some consider an internal problem. But it is time to take a closer look. Burma's generals are quietly moving in new directions that could make that dismal country a source of instability throughout South and Southeast Asia.

Strategically situated between regional rivals India and China, Burma is seeking to leverage the two powers' battle for influence.

China is the regime's major arms supplier and has assumed significant economic power over the country, recently extending debt relief and a $200 million loan to Burma, which has been cut off from most other external funding. China, reports indicate, has built a port and shipyard south of Rangoon to help export products from China's landlocked western provinces.

India, concerned about China's rising dominance, has stepped up its relations with Burma. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met with the Burmese foreign minister earlier this year, the highest-level contact between the two countries in more than a decade, and India is also reportedly building a port on Burma's coast.

Improving ties with regional powers is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if they would push Burma toward more civilized behavior.

But neither Beijing nor New Delhi has shown any such inclination. Instead the two huge neighbors are using Burma as a pawn in their rivalry, making it a potential source of friction, not a buffer. Japan is increasingly concerned about China's penetration of Burma, and it was to counter China's influence that the regional grouping of smaller countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), decided to admit Burma as a member several years ago. These countries see now that the junta was cynically using them to try to gain legitimacy.

More troubling is the news that Burma, one of the poorest countries on earth, has contracted with Russia for a nuclear reactor. Both sides insist it is for medical research purposes, but even if that's true, it would add an unnecessary proliferation risk to a world where terrorists are on the prowl for nuclear material. Some 300 Burmese have been in Russia receiving training to operate the facility, and Burma has also bought 10 MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia.

Most disturbing of all, Burma is renewing ties with North Korea that were cut off after North Korean agents in 1983 set off a bomb in Rangoon that killed 21 people, including four visiting South Korean cabinet members. Besides possibly reestablishing formal diplomatic relations, the two have held high-level discussions on military cooperation.

The link-up of these two pariah states can only spell trouble. North Korea's main export is dangerous weapons technology, and there have been reports that Burma is getting missiles and other arms from Pyongyang.

These developments have been largely overlooked as we concentrated on the war in Iraq, challenges in the Middle East and unpredictable developments on the Korean peninsula. But they are the seeds of a major threat to Asian security and stability. The world should take notice, and the United States needs to make Burma a priority in its relations with Russia, China, India and ASEAN so that we can forge a multilateral plan to turn the generals from their dangerous course.

(The writer is a Republican senator from Indiana and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)

(end byliner)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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