Help `the Bosnia of Asia' Western Leaders Must Enact UN Arms Boycott against Burma's Junta

Article excerpt

SIX months ago, President Clinton publicly assured the Burmese people that "America stands with them in the struggle for freedom in Burma." Next week at the United Nations, he and other Western leaders have an opportunity to make good that commitment by encouraging member states to avoid providing arms to the Burmese military junta. Yet the commitment appears to be faltering.

A voluntary arms boycott sponsored by the UN General Assembly would finally give teeth to the UN's repeated calls to the junta to transfer power to pro-democracy legislators elected in a 1990 landslide victory. Coupled with a proposed role for the UN secretary-general in promoting dialogue among the junta, legislators, and ethnic groups seeking autonomy, the initiative would enhance prospects for settlement of Burma's 40-year-old disputes.

US officials and international leaders have urged a UN arms boycott against Burma. In a May bipartisan resolution, US senators called on Mr. Clinton to "encourage the adoption of an arms embargo and other sanctions against the regime in Burma." That month Nobel laureates, including Desmond Tutu, urged Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to seek a "comprehensive and effective arms embargo."

After the meeting, Clinton said he was "deeply concerned by the tragic human rights situation in Burma." He commissioned a complete review of US policy toward Burma. According to official sources, the paper advocates US leadership in pressing a UN General Assembly-backed arms restraint against Burma.

Yet the review languishes at the White House, awaiting final approval; meanwhile, the UN initiative is stagnating. On Nov. 3 the Senate foreign relations committee unanimously urged release of the review's findings.

Burma's tragedy has earned it a reputation as the "Bosnia of Asia." The military seized power in 1988 and, naming itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has killed, arrested, tortured, or forced out of the country more than half a million civilians; and it has repressed free-thinkers like Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel peace prize, a pro-democracy leader who has been under house arrest since 1987. Some 40 members of parliament elected in 1990 remain in detention; public demonstrations are banned. Last month, 12 people received 20-year sentences for disseminating pro-democracy literature.

The SLORC has uprooted some 500,000 villagers in its war against minority ethnic groups seeking autonomy. …