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Wash. Post: Burma: Enforce the Law

HEADLINE: Burma: Enforce the Law  
SECTION: comment

UNOCAL, THE U.S. energy company cooperating with Burma's totalitarian
regime to develop natural gas in that Asian country,   likes to show
photographs of the classrooms and clinics it is building for villagers
along the route of its unfinished gas pipeline through the jungle.
Unocal's presence, the argument goes, can act as a civilizing influence
on Burma's regime -- better known for repression, torture and forced
labor -- and so the U.S. administration shouldn't impose economic
sanctions restricting U.S. investment.

Another, less appealing consequence of economic development is
unfolding now on the Burma-Thai border. The pipeline of the $1.2 billion
project, in which France's Total is the other major participant, will
carry natural gas from Burma's Andaman Sea to Thailand. Burma's junta
will get badly needed foreign currency; Thailand's growing economy will
get badly needed energy. But Burma's regime fears that ethnic Karen, a
Christian anti-Communist minority that has been fighting for greater
autonomy for five decades, could stand in the way. So about 100,000
Burmese troops are now bludgeoning their way to the frontier in a
mopping-up campaign. Thousands of refugees are streaming across the
border. Thailand, which for years has sheltered Karen refugees, now is
forcing them back across the border toward Burma's guns. The lure of
Unocal's gas apparently is very strong.

What does any of this have to do with the United States? Burma is a
naturally wealthy country of 45 million people (of whom about 4 million
are Karen) that has been steadily impoverished by its corrupt and
incompetent rulers. In 1990 an overwhelming majority of Burmese voted
for a pro-democracy party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of
Burma's anticolonial independence hero. She is supported, too, by the
Karen and other ethnic minorities, for whom she promises a democratic
federative system. But the military thugs who rule the country never
allowed her to take power, and she remains under virtual house arrest.
Hundreds of her supporters have been jailed -- more last year than at
any time since the current regime seized power in 1988.

Promising to stand with Burma's democrats, Congress last year passed a
law requiring the president to ban further U.S. investment if the regime
moved against Aung San Suu Kyi or intensified its repression. Both in
Burma's capital and on the Thai border, the latter condition certainly
has been met. If the administration dithers any longer, it will only
encourage the regime to think it can realize the former condition, too,
at no cost to itself.