Nations in need of stability

By Lee Hamilton
Nov 20 2007

 Earlier this month, two leading United Nations officials seeking to bring peace and stability to Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Sudan incurred the wrath of their reprehensible host governments.

In Sudan, the government ordered the head of U.N. humanitarian efforts in Darfur out of that embattled region. Meanwhile, Myanmar's ruling junta expelled another top U.N. official on the heels of his critical comments of the government and its role in the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Both countries are modern–day horror stories.

As many as 450,000 people have died as a result of fighting in the Darfur region of Sudan and 2.5 million have been displaced. In Myanmar, accurate numbers of political prisoners and the executed in the wake of the “Saffron Revolution” are hard to come by, given the junta's stranglehold on all media outlets.

While the generals load their coffers, one–third of Myanmar children younger than five are “chronically malnourished.” Yet only 2 percent of the budget is dedicated to health care (40 percent goes to the military).

But the real question is what the international community can do. The expulsion of the aforementioned officials exposed the U.N.'s limits in ensuring those rights. We should harbor no illusions about the intentions of Myanmar's Gen. Than Shwe or Sudan's President Omar al–Bashir. But that does not render the international community helpless. If it wants to do more than sound the alarm, it will have to be more united.

For almost two decades, Myanmar's regional neighbors and Western countries have pursued diverging policy agendas. The United States and Europe have implemented strict sanctions, while China, India, Thailand, Singapore, and others have opted for engagement. ASEAN even extended full membership to Myanmar in 1997. A fractured approach simply enables the junta to ignore pressure.

The situation is more complex in Darfur. The U.N. estimates the rebels have split into 28 groups, many of whose leaders even refused to attend recent talks in Libya—talks which failed to produce a ceasefire. And both the Sudanese government and the rebels have incited violence.

“Of the four major military incidents in June, July, August and September all were started by rebel militias, which then the Sudanese military responded to with brutal force,” President Bush's envoy to Darfur said.

Further destabilizing the peace process is the fraying agreement between the two principal antagonists in the north and south, which ended a brutal 21–year civil war in 2005.

There is no military solution to these situations. Only a political agreement will achieve sustainable peace, and that will require an international approach that incorporates regional and economic pressure, including sanctions.

In Myanmar, the U.S. must work with China, India, and the ASEAN countries, for those neighboring countries have the greatest ability to change the junta's behavior.

By emphasizing changing regime behavior, rather than changing the regime itself, we can avoid jeopardizing these countries' economic investments in Myanmar, which might preclude their cooperation. We should strive to weaken the forces of totalitarianism and repression in pursuit of a freer and more stable country. We should work with the region's governments to demand that the regime conform to international standards of behavior, which Burma's neighbors have all endorsed.

In Sudan, China's role could be crucial. It is Sudan's largest bilateral trading partner, and has long championed non–interference in others' (and its own) domestic affairs. But as the 2008 Summer Olympics approach, Beijing is becoming more sensitive to its global image. Its appointment of a special envoy to Sudan last May suggests China may be responding to international pressure. Libya, which hosted the recent failed peace talks, can also contribute, especially if it pushes Sudan to end its foot–dragging on accepting non–African U.N. peacekeepers. The African Union peacekeeping forces simply have not been up to the task.

The outcome in both Burma and Sudan will likely be imperfect, but relief from cruelty can emerge in both countries under severe pressure from a skillfully structured international diplomatic effort.

 (Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)