Engagement with Burma surest path to reform

THE international community must gently coax the regime towards democracy.

BURMA’S Aung San Suu Kyi, a diminutive, slight woman of uncertain health, has become a universal moral symbol. She has attained the kind of global celebrity and moral charge which has been held by very few people in recent decades – perhaps Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and John Paul II when he was first elevated to the papacy.

It is not just that these were heroic figures of transcendent courage and forbearance, but rather their identities assumed a kind of global, almost unchallengeable credibility. I remember covering Mandela’s visit to Canberra some 20 years ago and finding his generosity and spirit of reconciliation astonishing. I found a similar tone in the Dalai Lama in our several interviews. But here’s the thing. Mandela was successful in his core political aim – leading a reconciled South Africa; the Dalai Lama has failed in his – gaining regional autonomy for Tibet. Moral stature, even universally recognised moral stature, does not guarantee political success.

The apartheid government released Mandela because it knew that history’s game was up. Apartheid had to come to an end and they were looking for the best, most authoritative and moderate African to hand power to.

The Burmese government, led by General Than Shwe, is in a different position. It has just held a rigged election which has reinforced its total control. It has almost certainly released Suu Kyi because it feels secure, not the reverse. It has no intention of giving up power.

If the important players in the international community misjudge Suu Kyi’s release as indicating the junta is on the brink of collapse, or is looking to introduce real democracy, they will mis-play the new politics created by her release and miss the real opportunities it provides.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, understands this well. Australia will be a player in the international response to Burma. One of the first telephone calls Suu Kyi took after her release was from Rudd. Naturally, he expressed his congratulations, but was very careful in his public comments later, saying that Australia would support the dialogue between Suu Kyi and the government.

Australia’s role was also evident in Suu Kyi’s letter last year to Than Shwe. She asked to meet three ambassadors – those from the US, Britain and Australia.

Rudd told The Weekend Australian that he planned to “continue to incrementally engage the regime for two reasons. The first is that Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to a pathway of reconciliation and engagement with the regime. The second is that the Burmese people need help now. We’ll continue, also, in parallel track with the democratic leaders in Burma as well. It’s likely that Australia will do more in the future.”

Rudd’s activism on Burma is sustained and well considered. Canberra sent a team of senior officials to Burma a year ago to talk to the regime and the democratic forces. It concluded that Canberra should increase its engagement with Burma. In their telephone conversation, Suu Kyi invited Rudd to Burma and he plans to go there “as soon as it’s appropriate”.

Burma is now entering a pivotal period in the reorganisation of the junta. The pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Party won overwhelming majorities in both national houses of parliament. The election was widely presumed to have been rigged, but some opposition candidates and others from ethnic minorities won seats. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was effectively prevented from participating.

Nonetheless, the generals clearly plan a new structure of government. In the next few months, the nation’s upper house, its lower house and the military will all nominate a vice-president. The three groups will then sit together as an electoral college to choose a president. He will, at least in theory, be superior to the head of the armed forces. The military has a guaranteed number of MPs and gets to choose the defence, border affairs and home affairs ministers.

There is speculation about whether Than Shwe will become president or continue to exercise power from some non-official position. The generals clearly want to clean up at least the look of their regime. The trick now for the friends of Burma is to help them use the situation to make some genuine change in substance.

There will be three classes of players who can influence the situation and who need to calculate carefully – the junta itself, Suu Kyi and her supporters in Burma, and international actors. If the international actors are overly ambitious and mis-play their hand, they will frighten the junta. Suu Kyi will go back to house arrest and nothing will change.

Suu Kyi gives every indication of moving calmly and slowly. She has talked publicly, and in a letter to Than Shwe, of working to have international sanctions removed.

The sanctions situation is complex and messy. China is the biggest external player in the Burmese economy. With big investments in Burma’s energy sector, it is building a port and pipeline in Burma. But Thailand also buys a lot of natural gas from Burma. None of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has sanctions against Burma. Nor does India, which also has a significant commercial and diplomatic presence there.

The US and the European Union have the widest suite of sanctions, encompassing trade.

Australia is in the middle and very sensibly, and in close consultation with the Obama administration in Washington, has been seeking greater engagement with Burma. Australia maintains sanctions against defence exports to Burma, which would be non-existent anyhow. And it has travel restrictions and targeted personal financial sanctions against 453 members of Burma’s ruling elite.

At the same time, Canberra has quietly and substantially increased its aid program to about $50 million this year. Last year, it was $29m and the year before that $17m.

It has not been announced yet, but Australia plans to give another $3m in aid to help deal with the latest round of cyclone damage caused last month.

No one should mistake this profoundly sensible move by the Australian government for a lack of commitment to human rights and democracy. The Australian aid is delivered through United Nations agencies or respected international NGOs. It is focused on women’s health, disease-prevention, fighting HIV-AIDS, agricultural development and some scholarships.

The American and European sanctions policies have not worked. They have been a disaster for the Burmese people. It is impossible to know Burma’s exact population. It’s probably about 57 million. Some one-third live in absolute poverty.

The Burmese receive, per capita, among the lowest aid support in the world – about $US8 ($8.12) per capita in aid. Before Cyclone Nargis, which hit in May, 2008, that was an even more derisory $US4. In contrast, neighbouring Laos receives aid of $US80 per capita. The people who suffer from figures like that are not the generals. It is the Burmese people.

Of course, the main responsibility for Burma’s plight rests with the junta. But the international community cannot remove the junta, which makes more than enough money to keep itself in comfort and keep itself in power.

And despite its brutality, corruption and monstrous mismanagement, not everything the junta has done is bad. It has heavily cracked down on poppy production. There is still a substantial illegal drug trade in Burma but it is nowhere near what it was 20 years ago.

Over the past 20 years, the junta has also pursued a range of straggling, disorganised and unreliable ceasefires with the various rebellious ethnic minorities, the Kachin in the north, the Wa and the Karens on the Thai border.

It is true that Suu Kyi won a democratic election in 1990 and was never allowed to take power. It is also true that she has paid a terrible price in isolation, personal suffering and absence from her family over these 20 years of mostly house arrest.

But it is just possible that the junta wants to use her release to move things forward a bit. When they released her in 1995, she was not allowed to leave Rangoon. When they released her in 2002 she could only leave Rangoon with special permission.

This time, there are no restrictions on her, at least not yet. Further, while the government normally makes it nearly impossible for foreign journalists to visit Burma, in the past couple of weeks it has allowed dozens of foreign journalists into the country on tourist visas. There is now an enormous challenge to Suu Kyi as to how she manages this next period. If she travels around the country she will attract enormous crowds and that could spook the junta into putting her back under arrest.

Foreigners who want something better for Burma have for years been in dialogue with the government about a road to reform. Some hold up the Chinese or Vietnamese models of economic liberalisation while political authoritarianism is maintained. Both the international sanctions and the ethnic rebellions, not to mention the regime’s own clumsiness in economic matters, make that a difficult, if not impossible path for Burma.

For nearly 20 years, good hearted Indonesians have been telling the Burmese to study the New Order regime that prevailed in Indonesia under Suharto, especially in the early years after he took power in the mid-60s. The Indonesian army, like the Burmese, believed it was the only institution that could possibly keep the country together. It developed the doctrine of dwifungsi or dual function, to allow the military a direct role in politics as well as security.

But at the same time, especially in the early years, Suharto was extremely consultative. He tried to co-opt as many social forces into the New Order as he could and he took expert economic advice from the famous Berkely mafia.

Ironically, Indonesia’s very success in transforming itself into a democracy tends to undercut the New Order’s appeal to the Burmese generals. From their point of view, the New Order didn’t end well.

While it is hard to imagine any ASEAN nation ever imposing sanctions on Burma, the generals in their new mountain hideaway of Naypyidaw, do have to worry about southeast Asian public opinion.

The generals must want to achieve something from releasing Suu Kyi. It may be that they are seeking greater international space and some easing of sanctions.

Certainly, tourism is an obvious undeveloped resource affected by the sanctions. While the generals’ intentions are truly mysterious, and Western intelligence very limited in what it knows, there is some speculation that even the Burmese generals may be uncomfortable with the degree of their dependence on China. If that is the case, it is overwhelmingly in the interests of the international community, and of the Burmese people, to draw them out into the world a bit more. The key is to look for incremental rather than revolutionary change. For all its uncertainty, this is a uniquely hopeful moment for Burma. One way to wreck it is to overhype it. In this circumstance, caution should be the statesman’s byword.

By:-Greg Sheridan

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