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The Burma Road back to normalcy is long and uncertain

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is on the road to Burma to  witness a “critical moment” in the isolated Southeast Asian state’s slow but sure transition to a more open political system which may bring democracy, or could legitimize the long-ruling military regime.  Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Burma and called for a “suspension” of the suffocating economic sanctions slapped on the military rulers. And now the European Union has suspended  sanctions.  Equally the United States has trimmed some sanctions too.

Indeed in the last six months there’s been a positive and perceptible shift by Burma’s nominally-civilian government.  Rationales for the change has been easing debilitating economic stagnation caused by the embargos, tilting the country away from total dependence on China, and attempting to defuse growing political pressures from until-recently banned opposition.

Burma's parliament includes a fresh crop of military representatives. / Soe Than Win / AFP / Getty Images

Burma’s military regime, in power since the early 1960’s, though politically backed by Beijing, remains in the steely grip of Mainland Chinese military and commercial deals. Thus the military has tactically allowed a glimmer of hope into what only a few years ago looked hopeless. After all, political parties were banned, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Su Ki was under house arrest, and the resource-rich country was mismanaged by corrupt state socialism.

Making matters worse, the United States and the Europeans enforced punishing economic sanctions which hurt the Rangoon regime, but in turn made the country, which renamed itself Myanmar, infinitely more dependent on neighboring China.

Earlier this month,  free and essentially fair elections were allowed for about ten percent of Parliamentary seats.   Predictably the National League for Democracy, the standard bearer of the harassed opposition movement, won the seats and Aung San Su Ki gained a place in Parliament.   This is by no means a change on government but in attitude and aspirations for 52 million Burmese.  There’s a whiff of reform throughout the land.

Amazingly, Aung San Suu Kyi will soon travel abroad for the first time in 24 years and visit Norway (to officially receive her 1990 Novel) as well as Britain.

Ban Ki-moon stressed, “Now is the time for the international community to stand together at Myanmar’s side…yet we also recognize this fresh start is still fragile.” Reinforcing the fresh start  should be suspending but not formally ending the economic sanctions.

Diplomatically it’s the season to visit Burma;  have a celebratory meeting with Aung San Su Ki, see the glitz, gilt and gold capital Naypyidaw to meet and greet soldier turned civilian President Thein Sein the enigmatic face of regime, and  then offer words of encouragement for Burma’s road to democracy.  Hillary Clinton, (first US Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles) David Cameron (First British PM since independence in 1948) and the globe-trotting UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (his third visit) all bring good tidings from the outside world.  All fine and well, but there’s a lesson here too.

Just four years ago in May, Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Burma coast causing massive devastation. Despite over two million of its people being trapped by the storm, for three fateful weeks, the ruling junta forbade and blocked international emergency aid.  Ban Ki moon begged the military to allow humanitarian supplies into flooded communities.   At least 130,000 Burmese died, many of whom could have been saved had the regime allowed assistance from the United States, Japan, Australia, and UN agencies.

Beyond the cruel ineptitude in dealing with natural disasters, Myanmar’s rulers enforce tight political control, press censorship and aggressive suppression of ethnic minority groups such as the Shan. Economically elements in the military are mired in opium production, deforestation of valuable teak trees, and gem smuggling.

But what media exists is politely and predictably mum.  For example Reporters without Borders, has ranked Burma near the bottom of ten countries lacking press freedoms. The report cites, “relentless advance censorship” and the arrest of journalists and bloggers.

As Ban advised, “Myanmar is only at the beginning of its transition. Many challenges lie ahead…yet, I am convinced that we have an unprecedented opportunity to help the country advance towards a better future.”

For the USA, the Europeans and Burma’s other friends, Ronald Reagan’s memorable quote, “Trust but verify” sets the tone.  The Burma Road ahead is long and uncertain.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.

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