US policy to Burma 'must focus on people'

Oct 1, 2009 (DVB), United States policy to Burma must address the deteriorating living conditions in the country, and not continue to focus just on the government, aid groups said yesterday.

An open letter signed by 20 aid agencies, including Save the Children, Refugees International and International HIV/AIDS Alliance, welcomed greater US engagement with Burma.

It stressed however that while aid "is one of the few areas where concrete progress is being made" in Burma, the US must "continue to increase humanitarian assistance".

"While the Burmese military regime bears most responsibility for the situation in Burma, international humanitarian aid for the Burmese people has not kept pace with their needs."

It added that engagement only with the ruling junta would not begin to tackle Burma's myriad problems.

"US policy towards Burma has traditionally focused on the government and not the millions of people in Burma, whose living conditions have steadily deteriorated," it said.

The comments were echoed by Southeast Asia researcher at Amnesty International (AI), Benjamin Zawacki, who said that the overwhelming majority of the Burmese population "have been held hostage to political concerns" when it comes to humanitarian aid.

"This is simply indefensible, so we very much support humanitarian engagement to Burma," he said.

He added that the time was ripe for a change in US policy to Burma, but whether through sanctions or engagement with the ruling junta, "there must be no let up in the quantity of pressure".

"Sanctions certainly have been a failure. The purpose of those sanctions was to ultimately affect government policy, vis-à-vis human rights, political participation, and so on, and in that they have been a categorical failure," he said.

Senior US State Department officials met with Burma's delegation to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in New York.

The US announced last week that it will look to directly engage with the ruling junta, whilst maintaining sanctions, following years of a failed isolationist policy.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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