UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is on the road to Myanmar 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 legitimise the long-ruling military regime.
Recently, British prime minister David Cameron visited Myanmar 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 Myanmar’s nominally-civilian government. Rationales for the change have 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.
Myanmar’s military regime, in power since the early 1960s, 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 Suu Kyi 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 infinitely more dependent on neighbouring China.
Earlier this month, free and essentially fair elections were allowed for about 10 percent of parliamentary seats. Predictably the National League for Democracy, the standard bearer of the harassed opposition movement, won the seats and Suu Kyi 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, Suu Kyi will soon travel abroad for the first time in 24 years and visit Norway (to officially receive her 1990 Nobel) 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 recognise 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 Myanmar; have a celebratory meeting with Suu Kyi, 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 Myanmar’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 Myanmar 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 which 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. Economic 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 Myanmar near the bottom of 10 countries lacking press freedoms. The report cites, “relentless advanced 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 toward a better future.”
For the United States, the Europeans and Myanmar’s other friends, Ronald Reagan’s memorable quote, “Trust but verify” sets the tone. The Myanmar’s road ahead is long and uncertain.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide; USA/Euroland Gap?” (University Press, 2010).