There is currently much international ado about Myanmar. At first glance, the
regime is under increasing pressure to reform itself and allow a measure of
democracy in the country, formerly known as Burma. But there are so many
crosscurrents, political and economic, that the prospects for real change may be
little higher than at any time since 1990, when the generals thwarted the
electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.
The good news is that several members of
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are admitting that their efforts to
promote change through dialogue with the generals have failed. Members of
Malaysia's ruling party were the first to move, and now Asean legislators in
Manila for the Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting have demanded that their
foreign ministers, due to meet next week, bring more pressure to bear on the
regime in Yangon to free opposition leaders and permit a degree of democratic
Meanwhile the UN envoy to Myanmar, the
Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail, is expressing frustration at being prevented
from visiting the country, and the International Labor Organization has repeated
its condemnation of its use of forced labor.
Some of this Asean reaction is out of
genuine democratic sympathy, some out of frustration that Myanmar's economy is
almost as unreformed as its politics. Most, however, is out of concern that
Asean itself will be damaged if Myanmar in its current political condition is
allowed to take the chairmanship of the group when its turn comes next year.
This modification of the policy of noninterference in one another's internal
affairs was articulated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore. He noted
that "developments in one Asean country could impact on Asean as a whole." Lee
was in Yangon to promote trade as well as to deliver this political message to
General Tan Shwe, the head of Myanmar's junta.
Western pressure and threats to boycott
meetings held in Yangon have clearly had an effect even on governments
traditionally sympathetic to authoritarian rule and whose businessmen, as is the
case with Singapore and Malaysia, have been deeply involved in trade with the
regime. But Asean proceeds by consensus, and it will be a hard fight to persuade
Vietnam or Cambodia to help delay Myanmar's chairmanship. Thailand also has an
equivocal position; business interests appear to dominate current policy, and
the government has chosen this moment to pressure Burmese exiles in Thailand by
demanding they move from the major cities to remote border areas.
Meanwhile the generals may be too
preoccupied with their own infighting to bother too much about Asean or
democratic gestures. No one knows quite what power plays are in progress, but
there are still reverberations from the arrest of Khin Nyunt, then prime
minister, in October. A closed-door national convention to draw up a new
constitution has been adjourned and is not expected to resume till November.
The generals can also take solace from
the bizarre politics of the European Union, which is marking its "Burma Day" on
Tuesday with a seminar attended largely by those advocating dialogue with the
regime. To pave the way, an EU-commissioned "independent" report urges the end
of sanctions and engagement with the generals. But its two academic authors have
been characterized by The Irrawaddy, the best external English-language news
source about Myanmar, as "well-known regime sympathizers."
Expatriate Burmese groups have been
similarly scathing. But the EU, long intransigent toward the junta, now seems
under the influence of Singapore-funded academic research and of former
diplomats from EU member countries making livings as businessmen in Southeast
Myanmar's economy may be in a shambles,
thanks more to mismanagement than sanctions. But its energy resources and
strategic position give the generals more leverage than ever. India, putting
national interests before democracy, is eager to offset China's dominant
influence and will buy Burmese gas if Bangladesh can be persuaded to allow a
pipeline across its territory. India's foreign minister, Natwar Singh, visiting
in March, described Myanmar as a "valuable neighbor and strategic partner."
Indian companies are interested in increasing exploration. So is South Korea.
China, of course, remains the generals' staunchest friend, arms supplier and
The bottom line seems to be that neither
dialogue nor sanctions have much effect. Tan Shwe and his comrades are almost as
impervious to the outside world as Kim Jong Il of North Korea.
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