PUNISHING MYANMAR

Congress once again is poised to vote on a measure designed to punish an oppressive regime - this time in Myanmar - by imposing economic sanctions. As it has so many times in the past, it is once again making a grand but empty political gesture that will do little to change the junta's policies and even less to topple it. By contrast, it will sour relationships with U.S. allies and, worse, harden increasingly anti-Western sentiment in Southeast Asia.

The military junta in Myanmar, formerly Burma, deserves all the international ostracism it is getting. The Orwellian-sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council, or Slorc, which seized power from a legitimately elected government in 1990, has launched a vicious attack on political opposition in recent weeks. The focus of its wrath is the Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader whose National League for Democracy won the 1990 election. Leo Nichols, her godfather, died in prison after his arrest for the possession of a fax machine. Prison torture is commonplace, children are coerced into hard labor, and the junta is fast becoming the world's foremost supplier of heroin.Such brazen disregard of the rules of civil conduct raises anew the question of how the world should react, especially when the tyrannical government in Yangon seems to disregard world opinion.

There are many tools, political and economic, that can be used to put pressure on Slorc, or any such regime, but imposing unilateral sanctions is the least desirable or effective. More often than not such sanctions can be easily evaded, losing much of their desired effect. Although U.S. allies in Europe have expressed outrage at the junta's conduct, there is no sign governments there would agree to an economic boycott of Myanmar. Moreover, Myanmar's neighbors are growing increasingly impatient with Western interfence in their region. A recent editorial in the Far Eastern Economic Review declared that Asean, the group of Southeast Asian countries considering Myanmar for membership, ''refuses to be dominated by anyone,'' especially the United States. Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, a senior official at the Malaysian foreign ministry, summed up the prevailing sentiment within Asean when he denounced as ''hypocrisy'' Western Europe's condemnation of Myanmar's human rights record.

The Clinton administration was right to send diplomats to Asian capitals in an effort to drum up support among the eight Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries for a common diplomatic front against Myanmar, even though the visible effect was small. The Asean countries, meeting over the weekend in Singapore, did not budge from their plan to admit Myanmar to its ranks by 1998.

The administration is also right in denying Myanmar economic assistance and voting in the International Monetary Fund against any financial aid. Myanmar's economy is declining, inflation is skyrocketing, the currency is near collapse on foreign exchanges and the government is falling further and further behind in servicing its external debt. Myanmar needs foreign assistance, and denying it will hurt. True, this may force the junta to increase its reliance on the drug trade, but turning Southeast Asia into the center of illicit drug traffic will win it no friends in the region.

Far more effective than politically motivated sanctions is a private sector response sparked by consumer and shareholder boycotts. Fear of a consumer backlash has already caused Carlsberg and Heineken, two of Europe's largest breweries, to pull out of Myanmar. Pepsi, Coca Cola, Levi Strauss, Eddie Bauer and other U.S. companies have all abandoned investment plans.

It will take time before such measures will bite, but, as South Africa demonstrated, they can be effective. The Senate bill to impose economic sanctions is a bipartisan blunder that will not work.

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