By ERIK SOLHEIM
Cut off contact with Hamas! Don't talk to Israel! Keep away from Burma! Over the past few years there have been calls from many quarters to break off contact with regimes we don't like. Few, however, seem to have a realistic idea of whether breaking off contact works, or what kind of regime it might work on.
In this context it is worth recalling the words of former Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, more of a hawk than a dove: "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies."
Dialogue is not a goal in itself. The goal is to reduce conflict and save lives. We must be clear at all times about our basic values, which include respect for the individual, human rights and democracy.
For more than 20 years, I have been a champion of human rights and democracy in Burma. A number of times I've thought that a major breakthrough was imminent, but I was always disappointed. At the end of January I was in Burma and saw with my own eyes that in many respects the country has stood still for the past several decades.
Since a military junta seized control of the country in 1988, the West's response has been to isolate it. The regime has refused to implement political and economic reforms. It's time to think of a new approach.
Isolation rarely leads to improvements in a country, but it often creates considerable problems for the people living there. Experience has shown that democratic development is closely linked to the emergence of a middle class. It is the middle class that has the resources to become politically engaged in promoting freedom of expression and other social progress, not the poor, whose hands are full trying to keep their children from going hungry. If a country is isolated from the rest of the world, no middle class will emerge, and achieving democratic development will be far more difficult.
According to East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta, if Indonesia had been isolated in the same way as Burma, it would still be a dictatorship and East Timor would not have won its independence in 2002. Democratic development has also been closely linked to the emergence of a middle class in Thailand, South Korea, and most other countries in eastern Asia.
Because of isolation, few Burmese receive any stimulus from the outside world, and fewer yet are aware of how far Burma lags behind neighbors like Thailand and China, both economically and technologically. If Burma's military leaders are given more opportunity to travel abroad, they will be more likely to say as Mikhail Gorbachev once did: "We cannot live like this any longer."
One of the hallmarks of Norway today is that we are nearly always willing to talk to everyone. This has given us a special role in a number of conflicts. Because we could talk to Hamas and were thus among the first to establish contact with the Palestinian National Unity Government, we have had unique access to the negotiations in the Middle East conflict. In Sri Lanka we were among the few who had contact with both the Tamil Tigers and the authorities. We met with the Nepalese Maoists before anyone else. Now the Maoists are represented in the national assembly and the prime minister is from their party. We talk to Communist guerrillas in the Philippines, and have contact with rebel groups in Burundi and Sudan. When the parties in strife-torn Zimbabwe decided to establish a government of national unity, we started a dialogue with all of them.
The fact we have contact with regimes and armed groups doesn't mean that we accept their views but simply that we have an opportunity for dialogue.
The emergency relief effort that followed cyclone Nargis' devastation of Burma last year showed that it was possible to get much-needed aid to the people of the country. The UN and NGOs did a wonderful job. The participants in the relief effort described the situation as a "humanitarian space," which Norway, together with many other Western and Asian countries, has helped to fill. This space opened up because the UN secretary-general and the regime talked together.
Now it is essential that we help to preserve this space and eventually extend it to the rest of the country.
Burma is facing major challenges because of the financial crisis. The military regime is planning elections, which are certain to be neither free nor fair. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is still being kept under strict house arrest. Unfortunately there is little hope of any democratic breakthrough in the near future. We must take a longer, historical perspective; openness and dialogue are bound to be more effective than isolation.
Erik Solheim is Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International Development. He wrote this commentary for IPS.