Thursday December 8, 2011

Diplomatically Speaking By Dennis Ignatius

With more international engagement, questions remain as to how far the Myanmar regime will go to undertake meaningful reform.

Last week, the US opened a new chapter in its relations with Myanmar with a ground breaking visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While the immediate purpose of her visit was to encourage democratic change, that it took place within the context of America’s growing regional rivalry with China, carries with it inherent dangers as well.

Myanmar has been ruled for most of its post-independence years by a small coterie of corrupt and repressive military leaders who turned one of Asia’s breadbaskets into a basket case.

The regime’s oppressive rule has resulted in decades of internal strife, widespread poverty and massive human rights violations.

International efforts to bring the generals to heel have been hamstrung by the reluctance of the Asean countries, as well as China and India, to isolate them.

Recently, however, the generals have initiated some surprising changes.

The constitution was rewritten, elections were held that replaced the military junta with an ostensibly civilian administration led by President Thein Sein (a former general), media restrictions were eased, labour unions were legalised and some 200 political prisoners were released.

More significantly, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s founding father, Nobel laureate, long-time political prisoner, arch-nemesis of the junta and all-round hero of the Burmese people, was also released from house arrest.

Observers believe that the generals are motivated by a mixture of enlightened self-interest, strategic advantage and economic necessity.

It is no secret that the long years of Western sanctions have left the country dangerously dependent upon China whose rapacious need for resources has turned parts of Myanmar into a virtual colony.

The crux of the issue, for those concerned with human rights and democracy, is whether the limited and tentative moves towards reform are real “flickers of progress”, as President Obama put it, or merely smoke and mirrors to manipulate international opinion.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, for one, has cautioned that “the situation (in Burma) has remained terrible for so long that there is now a kind of defeatism that makes frustrated well-wishers eager to be thrilled by little mercies”.

His concerns are valid given that the systematic and widespread abuse of human rights continues unabated, hundreds of political prisoners remain incarcerated and the regime’s relentless war against its minorities shows no signs of letting up.

Just last month, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly expressed grave concern over the situation in Myanmar.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that Suu Kyi, who is no pushover, and from whom many will undoubtedly take their cue, is herself now cautiously supportive of the reforms.

She has indicated that Thein Sein is someone she can work with and has decided to lend legitimacy to the whole process by contesting a seat in upcoming parliamentary by-elections.

She also endorsed Clinton’s visit though she remains worried that the wider Western engagement of the regime that will inevitably follow could be premature.

Perhaps, she too senses the shifting geopolitical tide and feels she must seize the opportunity, no matter how tenuous, to regain her country’s freedom. It cannot help that she has, at times, been criticised for being too inflexible.

In the meantime, the generals are reaping an immediate windfall in terms of diplomatic recognition.

Clinton indicated that there would be some easing of US economic restrictions as well as an upgrading of diplomatic relations.

The Japanese foreign minister, whose country recently resumed development assistance to Myanmar, is scheduled to visit next.

Missions from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are expected to follow as well.

The great prize, however, was winning Asean’s endorsement to assume the chairmanship of the organisation in 2014.

That could well bring the largest bevy of world leaders to Myanmar in its history, including, quite possibly, the US president.

Quite a coup considering that the generals have given up little.

What happens next will be critical.

Will international engagement encourage the regime to undertake meaningful reform or will it merely convince them that they can successfully exploit big-power rivalry to forestall real change?

Will the US, for its part, avoid the temptation to downplay important human rights principles to gain strategic advantage in Myanmar as it so often did elsewhere during the war on terror?

Clinton, of course, reiterated that the United States wanted to see “free, fair and credible elections” in Myanmar.

It would surely not have escaped the junta’s attention that Myanmar is being pressed to accede to standards of human rights and democracy that are lacking in many Asean countries.

More than half the Asean countries do not, after all, have the kind of “free, fair and credible elections” that Clinton insists should be the threshold of acceptability in Myanmar.

Furthermore, political prisoners, restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly, press censorship, detention without trial and police brutality continue to blight the Asean landscape without too much protest from Washington.

One can only hope that real freedom and democracy will take root in Myanmar and the rest of Asean as well before big-power rivalry once again renders the region a dead zone for such things.