/ 27 October 2009

A glimmer of light for Burma

Cautious optimism expressed by Asian leaders at the weekend that the situation of isolated, benighted Burma is taking a turn for the better may prove to be more than the usual diplomatic doublespeak. Recent, relatively positive signals from the ruling military junta do not amount to a change of heart; the generals are not about to put up a sign saying ”Dun Dictatin”’ and retire to their jungle palaces, officials say. But out of darkness, a glimmer of light shows.

One hopeful indication came when Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, was temporarily released from house arrest to meet foreign diplomats and junta functionaries. The regime is also tentatively re-engaging with Western governments, including the US, which is due to send a high-level delegation soon. And last month, prime minister Thein Sein promised the UN that presidential and legislative elections due next year would be ”free and fair”.

Despite Suu Kyi’s sentencing in August to a further 18 months’ detention, Thein Sein reportedly told leaders at the 16-nation Asia-Pacific summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, that he was ”confident she can contribute to the process of national reconciliation”. Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, said: ”There was an atmosphere of hope that the leadership is moving towards normalising its relationship with the US [and] that next year’s election should see a reconciliation of the various segments of Myanmar society.”

There are several reasons for the regime’s shifting stance, western observers say. One is that the junta has begun to recognise it needs the legitimacy that only a relatively transparent poll process can bring. Domestically, the creation of regional legislatures may help defuse ongoing, historically violent tensions with the country’s 16 ethnic groups; internationally, a respectable election could trigger an easing of sanctions and additional aid and investment.

Senior General Than Shwe (76) head of the junta, is said to be hoping to stand down next year, for reasons of age and possible infirmity. He was committed to the regime’s so-called ”road map” to democracy and felt he had done ”a good job” in holding the country together, one analyst said. Now Than Shwe wanted to secure his legacy and the future safety of himself and his family by regularising, within defined limits, Burma’s relations with the west.

Another reason for taking advantage of Barack Obama’s willingness to reopen dialogue is said to be a desire to counter China’s growing influence. Harsh words from Beijing over the recent forced exodus of 30 000 mostly ethnic Chinese Burmese from Kokang into Yunnan province came as a sharp reminder that China, historically, was Burma’s number one enemy, and its security and commercial interests do not necessarily coincide with Rangoon’s.

US officials stress Obama is not offering the generals an easy option; sanctions would remain in place until there was a quantifiable improvement in the regime’s behaviour, secretary of state Hillary Clinton said last month. ”We expect engagement with Burma to be a long, slow, painful and step-by-step process,” said her deputy, Kurt Campbell, who may lead the visiting American delegation. But even circumscribed interaction with the US, underpinned by joint demonstrations of mutual interest over issues such as North Korea, would give the junta a strategic alternative to China and its other overbearing neighbour, India.

Scepticism that this apparent shift will lead to anything more than a sham election, decked out with democratic window-dressing to deflect western critics and hoodwink international opinion, is natural, given the junta’s record since it stole the 1990 polls. The evident risk for Obama, the UN, and others is that they will be suckered into supporting the insupportable.

There’s no doubt the 2010 election project is highly problematic. Burma’s new Constitution guarantees the continuing ascendancy of the military. New political candidates and parties will be vetted, Iran-style. Lack of free media, the absence of independent scrutiny, and intolerance of open debate do not sit well with the holding of ”free and fair” polls. And one deliberate side-effect may be the sidelining of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the winners in 1990, whose ageing leadership now faces a cruel dilemma: either participate in the elections, thereby lending credibility to a possible political travesty, or hold back and risk irrelevance.

”While never ending our struggle for democracy, the NLD has continually sought to engage the regime and open a dialogue, based on peace and mutual respect, that could address Burma’s critical political as well as social problems,” said NLD co-founder and former political prisoner U Win Tin in a recent article in the Washington Post. But he added: ”We will not be cowed or coerced into participating in a fatally flawed political process that robs the Burmese people of the freedom for which we struggle.”

In other words, a careful balance must be struck. Any western policy aimed at bringing the generals in from the cold should be carefully calibrated to strengthen, not undermine, the legitimate aspirations of the Burmese people. Getting the balance wrong will risk prolonged darkness in a land where, as Kipling might have put it, it was the light that failed. – guardian.co.uk