The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, Paulo Pinheiro, was forced to cut short a mission to Burma last month when a bugging device was discovered in a room where he was interviewing political prisoners. The aborted UN mission is a symptom of deeper problems. Frustration is growing as Rangoon's ruling generals appear increasingly distrustful and unwilling to continue a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition.
On Wednesday, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva is expected to adopt a resolution condemning Burma for repression. The commission will call for steps to improve human rights and cooperation with the UN secretary general's special envoy, Razali Ismail, in his efforts to facilitate dialogue between Burma's military and the opposition.
The commission's action will send a useful signal, but it won't be enough.
As Pinheiro said in Geneva, "It is more than urgent that the current deadlock be overcome and that the human rights situation" in Burma improves. Japan and the United States, working in concert, could help break the impasse by increasing both diplomatic and economic pressure.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in May, there has been only limited progress. According to the ruling State Peace and Development Council in Burma, more than 500 political prisoners were released in the past three years, but only 63 since January. Others have been arrested and the United Nations estimates that from 1,200 to 1,300 political prisoners remain locked up.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been allowed to establish a presence in conflict areas of Burma and this is a welcome step. Reports of systematic rapes by the Burmese army in Shan state have triggered calls for an independent investigation by the UN, and at least in principle, the government in Rangoon has agreed. But tight restrictions on basic freedoms remain throughout Burma, abuses against ethnic minorities continue, poverty is acute and the economy is in bad shape and getting worse. The United States and Japan have emphasized different approaches toward Burma. Washington has pushed for sanctions, while Tokyo has focused on engagement. Japan has also signaled its interest in trying to jump-start the process leading to a democratic transition. This year, Tokyo hosted a UN conference on Burma, attended by representatives of member states of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Nations, as well as the United States, European governments and other countries.
The Bush administration is considering imposing tougher economic measures. At a recent congressional hearing, a State Department official warned that in the absence of progress, "we will be forced to consider, in conjunction with the international community, additional sanctions." A bill cutting off all exports to the United States from Burma will be introduced soon in Congress, and could easily pass.
In this climate of increasing disappointment, Japan should play a more proactive role. The foreign ministry should consider appointing a senior diplomat to follow up the Tokyo conference by visiting the ASEAN capitals to urge them to intervene with Burma, which is a member of ASEAN.
In seeking to influence Burma, ASEAN countries should focus on specific steps that Pinheiro has recommended: agreement for a return visit to Rangoon by Razali, release of political prisoners, and the lifting of restrictions on free expression, assembly and association that would allow space for legitimate, peaceful political activities.
Japan is a major donor and investor in Southeast Asia, so its voice carries weight. It is in ASEAN's interest to promote change in Rangoon, if for no other reason than to offset China's influence.
The United Nations agencies working in Burma are preparing an assessment of humanitarian conditions and a framework for urgently needed assistance. Once it is made public, Japan should offer to provide additional aid to meet the needs of Burma's people, provided through the UN and nongovernment organizations. But Tokyo shouldn't give any new aid to Burma until there is substantial progress by the government to improve human rights and engage in political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the democratic opposition. A clear statement on aid policy for Burma should be delivered by Japan.
It would also be useful for Japan to begin discouraging private companies from considering investing there. Many Japanese companies are already reluctant to get involved in Burma's corrupt economy or to invest unless Japanese government aid is forthcoming. A decision by Japan to discourage investment would buttress the impact of U.S. sanctions and send a strong, united signal.
Burma's economic and social problems can only be effectively addressed if the government is willing to allow real change. Tokyo and Washington should work together to make a better future possible for Burma's people.
Mike Jendrzejczyk is Washington D.C. Director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.