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Plan offers aid to free Burma’s prisoners

December 28, 2008

From The Washington Post

The United Nations has embarked on a strategy to entice Burma’s generals to free more than 2000 political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, by offering them more development money.

According to senior UN officials, special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has proposed that nations offer Burma financial incentives to free the prisoners and to open the country to democratic change. In the months ahead, the UN leadership will press the Barack Obama’s administration to relax US policy on Burma to open the door to a return of international financial institutions, including the World Bank.

The bank left in 1987 because Burma, also known as Myanmar, did not implement economic and political reforms.

“It cannot be business as usual. We need new thinking on how to engage with Myanmar in a way that will bring tangible results,” Mr Gambari said, adding that the UN could not rely simply on “the power of persuasion with too little in the (diplomatic) toolbox”.

But critics characterise the strategy as a desperate attempt to salvage a diplomatic process that has deteriorated so badly that Ms Suu Kyi and Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s military ruler, declined to meet Mr Gambari during his last trip there in August. The critics say Mr Gambari is simply grasping to show progress in moving a regime that has no intention of embracing democratic reform.

The US and Britain have resisted financial perks, arguing that Burma should not be rewarded for bad behaviour.

Those countries were not “under any illusions that sanctions would solve Myanmar’s problems,” said Jared Genser, Ms Suu Kyi’s Washington-based lawyer and president of the advocacy group Freedom Now. But “if you flood them with development assistance, it will only go to the junta’s favoured few”.

Mr Gambari outlined his strategy in a confidential paper he presented last month to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In it, according to senior UN officials who have seen the document, Mr Gambari endorses building on the relations Burma established with the outside world after cyclone Nargis struck the country in May. He also calls for an increase in development assistance to Burma and proposes that wealthy countries expand the nation’s access to foreign investment, the officials say.

One key initiative involves the establishment of an economic and social forum to serve as a vehicle for channelling money and co-ordinating international development efforts.

To prevent Burma from steering assistance to its supporters in the Government, the UN has begun discussing with Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway how to ensure that money would go to the neediest in Burma.

Mr Gambari and other UN officials are urging countries with influence over Burma to lean on the Government to release political prisoners and provide an opening for the opposition in coming elections. “What we need is for the US and the UK to be softer and for the Chinese and the Indians to be harder,” one senior UN official said.

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