Jan McGirk: 'Constructive engagement' has paid few dividends

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The Independent Online

When the Burmese junta executed a U-turn and welcomed a United Nations envoy this weekend for the first time in more than two years, political analysts saw self-interest at work. Few expect the generals to heed calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi; detaining the Nobel peace laureate is their trump card.

But for a regime that lives up to the West's low expectations, displaying the opposition leader unharmed was guaranteed to garner a few brownie points. It's the start of wily manoeuvring as Asian leaders gear up to bring economic pressure on this resource-rich country. Increased revenue from China and India has been making the junta more strident because sanctions from the European Union and the United States have lost some of their bite. Since 1988, the generals have systematically impoverished the Burmese through fiscal folly, while ramping up political repression.

Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, cites Burma as Asia's "greatest embarrassment and failure". He argues that Burma should not be "coaxed into reform" but that the junta should work towards regional "security, development,and justice". Meanwhile, the vast teak forests are chopped to supply furniture for Asia's rising middle classes and denuded slopes are planted with rubber trees to supply latex for China's burgeoning automobile industry.

The human trafficking of desperate Burmese migrants exports misery to neighbouring China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos. Asia's policy of "constructive engagement" through trade with the intransigent junta has paid very few dividends so far.

Singapore and South Korea are intent on getting payback for their investment. The invitation to the UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, could hardly have been more timely. Less than a month ago, the UN passed a resolution condemning any government that fails to protect civilians from armed conflict. The US pointedly took Burma's Karen rebels off their terrorism blacklist.

But the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has ordered its army to step up a campaign against the Karen - ethnic Christian guerrillas who have fought Rangoon for five decades. Diplomats say it is the most intensive crackdown in a decade. Karen villagers who held their ground were slaughtered. Since December, 1,800 Karen villagers have fled to Thailand. Another 15,000 have been made homeless.

Jan McGirk is The Independent's South-east Asia correspondent.