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Endangering the Next Kim Dae-jung

November 6, 2009

Washington sends confusing signals to the people
who could bring change from within.
The Wall Street Journal
November 3, 2009

Since taking office President Barack Obama has
used strong words to describe the importance he
places on human rights, democracy and the rule of
law. In July, he told China's high-powered
delegation to the first U.S.-China Strategic and
Economic Dialogue that "support for human rights
and human dignity is ingrained in America" and
that the "religion and culture of all peoples
must be respected and protected, and that all
people should be free to speak their minds." In
his September 24 address to the United Nations
General Assembly, he promised "that America will
always stand with those who stand up for their
dignity and their rights." As the president
prepares to travel to Asia this month, should
anyone in the region doubt the United States' commitment to these values?

Unfortunately, there is doubt. Despite Mr.
Obama's statements, the administration's specific
actions on issues ranging from Burma to Tibet are
creating the impression that Washington has a
growing list of concerns that trump human rights
and democracy. The president and his team deserve
support for attempting new approaches to
intractable problems. It makes sense to talk
directly to the junta in Burma and to broaden the
agenda for cooperation with China. The problem is
that the administration's emphasis on engagement
is leading the region's autocrats and dictators
to see an opening for further repression at home.

The most obvious case is Tibet. The Dalai Lama
has met with the American president at the White
House during every visit to Washington since
1991. Initially, the Obama administration
signaled it would continue this tradition during
the Tibetan spiritual leader's planned visit in
October, but later changed its mind. The White
House may have hoped a subtler approach to the
Tibet problem would pave the way for a successful
presidential visit to China and yield quiet
results for Tibet. Fair enough—but the opposite
is happening. The Chinese are raising the ante on
the Tibetans, demanding that the Dalai Lama cease
all foreign travel and meetings with other
international leaders as a precondition for
resuming stalled Sino-Tibetan talks. Beijing is
also putting pressure on other nations to follow
the U.S. example, including India, which politely
gave Beijing a firm "no" to its demand that Delhi
stop the Dalai Lama from visiting his followers in disputed Arunachal Pradesh.

Rather than viewing gestures on Tibet as evidence
of goodwill to be rewarded, the Chinese reaction
has been to pocket the concessions and demand
more--steadily asserting its position that regime
behavior and internal affairs are not the
business of the international community. In the
long run, this will only complicate efforts to
encourage China to use its increasing power as a responsible stakeholder.

There are also confusing signals on Burma. After
a "Burma policy review," the administration
reasonably concluded that neither sanctions nor
engagement alone were likely to change the
behavior of the regime and announced that the
U.S. was going to try a new approach that
employed both. In September Assistant Secretary
of State Kurt Campbell testified to the Senate
that the U.S. would not ease sanctions without
meaningful steps by the junta and reserved the
right to strengthen sanctions if there is not
progress. This was the right basis for beginning
the dialogue. But the administration has also
stated that engagement will be a sustained and
long-term process, implying it would not
necessarily hinge on the regime's short-term behavior.

In response, Burma's prime minister, General
Thein Sein, announced in late October that the
U.S. had "softened its approach." The junta also
symbolically allowed international diplomats to
have access to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, the
junta has concurrently increased its internal
suppression of ethnic minorities and democracy
activists since the administration's policy
review and engagement strategy began. In June the
Burmese military drove 5,000 members of the Karen
minority across the border into Thailand, the
largest exodus of Karen in a decade. In August
the junta sentenced Ms. Suu Kyi to an additional
18 months of house imprisonment. In August and
September the junta began a major military
offensive against the Kokang people in northern
Burma, driving over 30,000 refugees into China.
Just last week the regime arrested 50 students,
journalists and political activists, even as the
U.S. prepared to send its first senior-level
delegation to Burma this week for high-level talks with the junta.

Tibet and Burma illustrate the administration's
serious dilemma: how to prevent its commitment to
engagement from being perceived as a sign of
shifting U.S. priorities and a greater tolerance
for repression. It is damaging enough that
Beijing and Naypyidaw are receiving this signal,
but even minor adjustments in U.S. policy have a
major ripple effect among friendly states also
grappling with how to encourage greater democracy
and human rights in the region. The European
Union was poised to activate stronger sanctions
against Burma but is now hesitating. Members of
the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian
Nations were engaging in a painful but important
internal debate about how to implement the
human-rights and democracy principles in their
new charter with respect to Burma, but at their
most recent summit in Thailand the focus was
entirely on what the U.S. would do to help solve the problem.

The president should use his visit to Asia to
correct the confusing signals Washington is
sending about the U.S. commitment to human rights
and democracy. The administration does not need
to abandon its aim of seeking results through
direct dialogue with Burma's leadership nor
curtail its ambitious agenda for cooperation with
China. But the administration should not be
afraid that a clear stand on human rights and
democracy will jeopardize those goals.

President Obama can begin by announcing his clear
intention to meet with the Dalai Lama early next
year and pressing Chinese President Hu Jintao to
resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama's
representatives without preconditions. Mr. Obama
can use the trip to clarify, in his meetings with
Southeast Asian leaders on the margins of the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, that
the U.S. will increase targeted financial
sanctions on Burma if repression continues to
escalate. The U.S. should also re-engage Burma's
neighbors to pressure the regime for change by
stating that the U.S. will continue its new
approach only if Ms. Suu Kyi is released and
there are real opportunities for the democratic
opposition and ethnic minorities to participate in a fair political process.

Finally, he should use his public addresses to
single out and demonstrate support for those
dissidents and prisoners of conscience who will
someday emerge as the future Kim Dae-jungs and
Vaclav Havels of Asia. For it is they who face
the greatest uncertainty if America's intentions remain unclear.

Mr. Green is senior advisor and Japan chair at
the Center for Strategic and International
Studies and associate professor at Georgetown
University. This is the first article in an
occasional series on the Obama administration's human-rights record.
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