By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Before entering Myanmar from Thailand, you scrub your bags of any hint that you might be engaged in some pernicious evil, such as espionage, journalism or promotion of human rights.
Then you exit from the Thai town of Mae Sot and walk across the gleaming white “friendship bridge” to the Burmese immigration post on the other side. Entering Myanmar (which traditionally has been known as Burma), you adjust your watch: Myanmar is 30 minutes ahead — and 50 years behind.
Already Myanmar’s government is one of the most brutal in the world, and in recent months it has become even more repressive.
A blogger, Nay Phone Latt, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A prominent comedian, Zarganar, was sentenced to 59 years. A former student leader, Min Ko Naing, a survivor of years of torture and solitary confinement, has received terms of 65 years so far and faces additional sentences that may reach a total of 150 years.
“Politically, things are definitely getting worse,” said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch living on the Thai-Burmese border. “They’ve just sent hundreds of people who should be agents of change to long prison terms.”
A new American presidency is a useful moment to review policy toward Myanmar, and the truth is that the West’s approach has failed. The Burmese junta has ruled despotically since 1988, ignoring democratic elections. Since then, sanctions have had zero effect in moderating the regime.
I have vast respect for Aung San Suu Kyi, the extraordinary woman who won a Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to the country’s thugs. But the best use of her courage right now would be to accept that the trade sanctions she advocated have accomplished nothing more than further impoverishing her own people. As with Cuba and North Korea, isolating a venal regime usually just hurts the innocent and helps the thugs stay in power.
Instead, the best bet is financial sanctions that specifically target individuals close to the regime — and, even more, a clampdown on Myanmar’s imports of arms.
“It would be very difficult to get an arms embargo through the Security Council, but that’s something that really goes to the heart of any military regime,” Mr. Mathieson said. “You lock them out of the tools of their own self-aggrandizement and repression.”
President George W. Bush tried to help Burmese dissidents, but he had zero international capital. The Obama administration, in contrast, has a chance to lead an international initiative to curb Burmese arms imports and bring the regime to the negotiating table.
Myanmar’s weapons have come from or through China, Russia, Ukraine, Israel and Singapore, and Russia is even selling Myanmar’s dictators a nuclear reactor, Mr. Mathieson said.
In crossing from Thailand to Myanmar, you pass through a time warp. You leave the bustle and dynamism of Thailand and encounter a stagnating backwater of antique cars and shacks beside open sewers.
I found it difficult to interview people in Myanmar, because I was traveling as a tourist with two of my kids (and my wife is sick of me getting our kids arrested with me in dictatorships). But we dropped in on the Myawaddy hospital, which was so understaffed that no one stopped us as we marched through wards of neglected patients.
The most flourishing business we saw on the Burmese side belonged to a snake charmer who set up temporary shop outside a temple. The moment a crowd gathered, an armed soldier ran over in alarm — and then relaxed when he saw that the only threat to public order was a cobra.
In Mae Sot, Thailand, I visited with former Burmese political prisoners, like the courageous Bo Kyi. They are at risk of being killed by Burmese government assassins, yet they are campaigning aggressively for change.
Equally inspiring are the Free Burma Rangers, who risk their lives to sneak deep into the country for months at a time to provide medical care and document human rights abuses.
One gutsy American working with the group, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, communicated with me by satellite phone from his hiding place deep inside Myanmar. He knows that the Burmese government will kill him if it catches him, yet he stays to gather photos and other evidence of how Burmese soldiers are drafting ethnic Karen villagers for forced labor and are raping women and girls. One recent case described by the Free Burma Rangers involved a 7-year-old girl who was raped, and then killed.
The courage of these people seeking a new Myanmar is infectious and inspiring. In this new administration, let’s help them — and see if with new approaches we can finally topple one of the most odious regimes in the world.