Posts Tagged ‘burma’
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in the heat of the Cold War, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was reportedly convinced that an air strike and invasion to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba would be “one hell of a gamble.” Though the circumstances are notably different, that about sums up the level of risk U.S. President Barack Obama and others are now taking on Burma.
After being scorned for decades as one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Burma’s new nominally civilian government is now being coaxed back into the international fold at a dizzying pace. At its annual meeting in Bali earlier this month, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) awarded Burma the much−coveted diplomatic prize of chairing the grouping in 2014. This week, Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will make the first official U.S. visit to the heavily−sanctioned nation in over 50 years. Everyone from UN Secretary General Ban Ki−moon to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton has offered glowing praise for the Burmese government, and even the opposition National League for Democracy, led by renowned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has re−registered to contest an upcoming by−election after boycotting polls just last year.
There is certainly some cause for all this back−patting. Since civilian President Thien Sien met with Ms. Suu Kyi in August, Burma has witnessed a cascade of reforms that have confounded even the most ardent skeptics. The government has, among other things, halted the construction of the China−backed dam due to public concerns, ended restrictions on the Internet, peaceful protest and free trade unions, loosened press freedom and released hundreds of political prisoners (though many more remain behind bars). Given these “flickers of progress,” Mr. Obama says he wants to “seize what could be a history opportunity” for Burma to possibly “forge a new relationship” with the United States.
Yet it remains unclear whether making such overtures right now will stimulate more reform or stifle it. After sanctioning and isolating a brutal hermetic regime for decades, encouraging a government that has shown an initial willingness to open up does make sense. There is also some reason to believe that Mr. Thien Sien’s government will continue down the path of change, particularly since it badly needs foreign investment from abroad to develop a battered economy and calm a restive populace at home.
But reform drives in Burma have been scuttled by hardliners before, and a similar outcome could result this time. The country also has a long walk down the road to meaningful change. The UN General Assembly offered a reminder of this when it passed a resolution last week condemning Burma in spite of recent reforms, citing “systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” ranging from arbitrary detention to rape and torture. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.−Ind.) released a statement ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s Burma trip stating that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was aware of Burma’s intent to develop nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea as early as 2006. Given this, critics say the international community should be cautious, waiting for more concessions, withholding major trump cards and sitting tight until promises are translated into reality.
Mr. Obama has instead opted for a riskier approach, responding to startling but piecemeal changes with a high−profile visit. This is despite the fears of many that the administration could be duped and look naïve ahead of presidential elections next year if reforms ebb or even reverse. But as the fearless Ms. Suu Kyi once said, “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” Mr. Obama and the international community have shown no shortage of courage gambling on Burma. Let’s hope it pays off.
This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily here.
The Burmese regime, by most accounts, is ruthless, xenophobic, and hermetic. Yet at an event I attended last month organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Southeast Asia program, I witnessed a remarkably different face from the Burmese diplomats in attendance, which, I then suspected and have since subsequently confirmed, is a rare sight.
The on-the-record event was supposed to be on humanitarian assistance in Burma, with two individuals (Thet Win from U.S. Collection, Humanitarian Corps and Vaughan Turekian from the American Association for the Advancement of Science) sharing their experiences from recent missions there and the rest of us huddled around a mid-sized table. As a few of us were exchanging pleasantries and cards before the event, three suit-clad men filed in.
It was only in the middle of the talk, when one of the presenters, Mr. Thet Win, said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see Burmese embassy representatives present, that I realized who they were. My eyebrows immediately rose. I’ve attended my fair share of these DC events, but I had never seen one, much less three, Burmese embassy representatives (nor have several others I have spoken to). That alone was remarkable. The talk continued, and both presenters seemed to be emphasizing either that removing the politics in a frayed relationship like between U.S. and Burma could make other kinds of technical and scientific cooperation possible (Mr. Turekian), or that engagement would be a better approach than isolation and sanctions (Mr. Thet Win).
The climax was when one of the CSIS staff invited the Burmese Embassy’s First Secretary to comment on the proceedings if he so wished. I don’t think most people expected much other than a flowery thank you message from a member of the usually rigid and tight-lipped Burmese embassy. But the First Secretary gave a 12 minute-long speech (I monitored and recorded it in my notes), which, Mr. Thet Win, who I imagine has had a lot of interaction with Burmese diplomats previously, himself noted as “the longest public speech I have ever heard from a Burmese official”.
More fascinating then the length of the speech, though, was the content and how candid he was about it. He outlined how engagement and technical cooperation were important, and did include the spiel about how pleased he was at these missions and how willing Burma was to respond to these initiatives. But he also admitted that “we have our own problems”, “especially in the area of education”, and went on to dwell on the fact that while Rangoon University was Southeast Asia’s premier institution in the 1940s and 1950s, the level of education had deteriorated since then to deplorable levels. He even cited specific details. It seemed like an honest assessment of his country and a genuine request for aid and cooperation.
Now, the behavior of a diplomat at one forum should not be used to generalize about the nature of the Burmese regime or provide a rationalization for its actions. But it was a rare window into what Burmese diplomats may be thinking, and a refreshing one to the extent that at least one of them acknowledges what most who study the country have long known: that the promise of Burma following decolonization was squandered in the decades that followed, whether in agriculture or education.
Responding to the surprise at many of the participants at his candor, the First Secretary said he had initially been apprehensive about attending the event, fearing a series of condemnations about his country. I’m glad he eventually did, and I hope the Burmese embassy continues to do so in the future. It may not result in groundbreaking changes in the situation inside Burma or in its relationship with the United States, but it will at least provide those of us who care about Asia with some idea as to what the Burmese themselves are thinking, no matter how much we may disagree. Hearing a Burmese diplomat speak so candidly ought not to be such a rarity.
*NOTE: The use of Burma as opposed to Myanmar is based on personal preference, and is not meant as a political statement.