Clinton prepares to stand by Suu Kyi

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The Independent Online
The Clinton administration has pledged to impose sanctions against Burma if the military dictatorship takes any further action to repress the pro-democracy movement of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The White House was voicing its support for a measure allowing for sanctions which was approved by the Senate late on Thursday. The measure is slightly less draconian, however, than previous proposals which demanded an immediate withdrawal of US investments in Burma.

Instead, the Senate agreed to give President Bill Clinton discretion to take a series of steps to isolate the military government if the repression of Ms Suu Kyi and her followers is seen to worsen. They include refusing visas to any of members of the government and their families, opposing new loans to the country by international institutions and limiting US aid to humanitarian assistance.

Mr Clinton will still have leeway to delay implementing such steps if he believes they could hurt US national security. The Senate directive, meanwhile, has been written into next year's $12.2bn (pounds 7.8bn) foreign aid budget, though it has not yet been passed by the whole Congress.

The action represents the first initiative by the US at a federal level to apply pressure on the Burmese regime. Some individual states, including Maine and Massachusetts, have acted individually by refusing to offer state contracts to any companies with investments in Burma.

Some American companies have also acted unilaterally to reduce their presence in the country, including Levi Strauss, which has withdrawn completely, and the Pepsi Company, which recently reduced by 40 per cent a stake in a Burmese beverage plant. Companies still in Burma that would have been forced out by more stringent Senate action include some energy conglomerates such as Unocal of California.

Senators who supported strong action claimed that leaders of the Burmese regime were also turning a blind eye to heroin traffic through the country. "The indication is that a number of them are benefiting directly from heroin," Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said.

The largest foreign investment in Burma to date is by the French oil group, Total, which has no intention of withdrawing, though Ms Suu Kyi accused it in an interview with Le Monde of being the "main support of the Burmese military system". The venture, a $1.2bn (pounds 800m) natural gas project in which US, Thai and Burmese companies are also involved, will enable Burma to sell gas to neighbouring Thailand.

While the French government has joined the EU in its criticism of the human rights situation in Burma and Ms Suu Kyi receives consistently sympathetic coverage in the French press, human rights considerations and commercial interests are regarded in France as separate. The French government might have difficulty endorsing an EU boycott of Burma, though it supports the current study of "restrictive measures".

Even human rights groups in France, while deploring the lack of human rights in Burma on the eve of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) conference in Jakarta this month, neglected to mention French commercial interests in the country and called only for Asean not to grant membership to Burma until it lifted the ban on opposition parties.

The Danish wholesale and shipping group East Asiatic Company dismissed calls by a pressure group campaigning for democracy in Burma for it to withdraw from all activities there or face a boycott.