America is Watching
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, November 18, 2018

America is Watching

By Ralph Boyce Thursday, January 3, 2008

(Page 2 of 2)

What can be done to achieve some positive change in Burma?

A: Well, obviously the UN process, the special envoy and Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro’s recent visit are extremely important because the regime is essentially claiming that they will deal only with the UN and that they reject a regional approach. They certainly reject any intervention from actors like the US or the UK or the EU. But in fact, we need to hold them to that; make it valid that the UN really has a practical role.

Just simply playing “rope-a-dope”—an old phrase from Mohammed Ali’s boxing days, where he would take his opponent and keep on the ropes, and the guy would basically just run out of gas—many people suspect that that’s what they’re doing with envoys who are visiting the state: they let them come in, they give them a minimal program, they don’t give them control of their own schedule, then they make a big deal about rescheduling the next visit and everybody waits for the next visit; then the same thing happens again and again.

That’s not valid and sustainable. So what I’m getting at is that when Ban Ki-moon says, “Patience is running out,” that means the UN system and the actors in the UN, including the Security Council, have to do something else. It’s just not going to go away.

Q: There are persistent reports that Burmese generals are paranoid about the annual Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand.

A: Cobra Gold has changed from being a Cold War-based bilateral exercise designed to help Thailand and the US practice defending against an invasion by land or sea to a multilateral exercise between the US, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore, and with a lot of other observers. It’s all very transparent. And, especially after the tsunami, it aims to practice multilateral approaches to transnational 21st-century issues.

Q: Many Burmese are disappointed with Asean and with Burma’s neighboring countries. They see them as opportunistic neighbors exploiting their natural resources.

A: Burma is constantly a challenge to Asean, because it decided to bring them in 10 years ago, and Burma has disappointed in every way possible. So now they’re stuck with them; and it’s a stain on Asean’s credibility. We talk about Burma with Asean representatives every time we meet, but we also recognize that there are other players—Delhi and Beijing.

Q: A large number of Burmese refugees live in Thailand and, over the last decades, more and more migrant workers have entered the country. This creates security problems and very uncertain futures. How do you see Thai policy toward the Burmese living here?

A: Thai policies toward people fleeing persecution and worse from their neighbors over the last 35 years have been very open and moral and proper, considering that, at the end of the day, even with the greatest amounts of international assistance and cash, and the UN agencies and everything else, the burden still falls on Thailand.

A less moral society might say: “Look. This is just ridiculous! We don’t need to be the home to millions and millions of people from other countries” and simply close their borders and/or push people back. 

While everyone has been very attentive over the decades to rumors that there were going to be major push-backs, whether it was Cambodians, Vietnamese, Lao of  various types, or Burmese of various types, Thailand’s record is, in fact, pretty good on that score.

There have been very few examples of the Thais being resistant to new inflows or dealing negatively with people. It’s a very sensitive issue for Thailand and, of course, they have to watch that 2,400-km border very carefully.
Q: What is your message to Burmese citizens who want to be friends of America?

A: We are watching. Stay the course. We know the suffering. We will never change our policy about what is right for Burma. I’m convinced that the change will come, and I hope it comes quickly.

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