US imposes sanctions on Burmese junta

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The US yesterday said it would go it alone in imposing economic sanctions on Burma in protest at "persistent human-rights abuses" by the military government. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State, said the measure "will deal a further blow to investor confidence" in Burma.

The decision follows the frustration of US efforts to co-ordinate international sanctions. Japan and members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in particular were reluctant to join any sanctions effort. Last week the UN Human Rights Commission passed a resolution expressing concern about arbitrary executions in Burma, deaths and torture of people in police custody, and forced child labour.

Burma's government has been criticised by the West ever since it refused to recognise the results of elections in 1990 that would have brought the opposition National League for Democracy to power. The co-founder and opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, spent six years under house arrest in Rangoon and still faces restrictions. Opposition demonstrations have been violently broken up but none of these actions precipitated the sanctions, which are mostly limited to a ban on new US investment in Burma. Existing projects are not affected. The US is the fourth-largest foreign investor in Burma.

The likelihood of sanctions was signalled by Ms Albright last week. The Burmese military had responded to calls for more democracy by "placing even greater limits on the right of political expression and by throwing peaceful demonstrators in jail".

"Burmese leaders are on notice," she warned, "that unless the clouds of repression are lifted, they will face investment sanctions under US law."

Ms Albright's style of direct speaking, which has recently included warnings to Iraq over its flouting of UN resolutions and to China over its treatment of Hong Kong after it takes control on 1 June, has created the impression that the human-rights question is once again becoming an important ingredient of US foreign policy.

Her words, however, are also pointing up what some critics of the administration see as a contradiction in policy.

They note that when Vice-President Al Gore visited China recently the subject of China's observance of human rights was absent and China did not feel constrained to offer concessions, as it has in the past, by freeing any political prisoners. China, say the critics, because of its size and importance to the US, is being judged by a more lenient standard than smaller, less important countries.