The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Flicker of Hope in Burma

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One underground Democratic Voice of Burma reporter laments to another in the award−winning film “Burma VJ” (2008), which chronicles a series of protests against the brutal military junta in 2007, “No matter what we do, everything just stays the same.” His colleague counsels, “Don’t be too sure.”

Four years later, few would contest that change is in the air in Burma. Just months after the transition to a fresh semi−civilian government under President Thein Sein, a dizzying array of reforms has confounded even the regime’s fiercest critics. Since Mr. Thein Sein met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in August, the government has, among other things, halted the construction of the China−backed Myitsone Dam due to public concerns, ended restrictions on the Internet and free trade unions, loosened press freedom and released hundreds of political prisoners.

The motives for reform are several. Mr. Thein Sein badly needs Western foreign investment to develop Burma’s battered economy. But that can only occur after U.S. and EU sanctions are lifted, which will require substantial political change on the government’s part. All eyes are also on Burma as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) evaluates if it is fit to chair the organization in 2014. With a crucial visit by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa looming later this month and a final decision expected in November, the clock is ticking.

Domestic imperatives are powerful, too. After decades of isolation and quasi−socialist policies, followed by Western sanctions, Burma’s military junta has transformed the country from a rice basket to a basket case. The economy is one of the poorest and most corrupt in the world, while the civil service, health and education systems are dismal at best. Seething public discontent is reaching a boiling point, as evidenced by the so−called Saffron Revolution of 2007, the largest anti−government demonstration since 1988, which erupted over fuel price increases. Burma’s rulers now know they can no longer govern with bullets alone.

How far this wisdom will take them, however, remains unclear. Previous attempts at reform have been tried and then either retracted or stifled by hardliners. A similar outcome may result this time, particularly with rumors of a bitter power struggle between Mr. Thein Sein and his more conservative vice−president Tin Aung Myint Oo. Some also fear that the pace of change may ebb after Burma secures its ASEAN 2014 chairmanship or concessions from the West. And even if reforms do continue, the country still has a long list of issues to confront ranging from healing ethnic divisions to instituting totally free and fair elections.

Yet the changes nonetheless deserve recognition by the international community. U.S. State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and U.S. Special Envoy for Burma Derek Mitchell, have met with Burmese officials and expressed cautious optimism about reform. But Thant Myint U, a historian and former U.N. official, says the West needs to support the reforms by not only cheering on the sidelines but lifting restrictions limiting the United Nations and World Bank from offering technical expertise and assistance, and moving toward ending sanctions. Jim Della−Giacoma of the International Crisis Group, a non−governmental organization, concurs, saying that Western countries should support Myanmar’s reformers rather than just lecturing them.

While the timing for implementing these recommendations may be debatable, their spirit and substance should not be. If the international community does not reciprocate by adding fuel to the flickering flame of reform in Burma, it may squander the best opportunity it has in over almost a quarter−century to pull the country out of darkness.

This article was first published in the Tufts Daily.

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