July 6, 2012


Will democracy take root in Myanmar? (Joshua Kurlantzick, Jun 23, 2012, The National)

The changes at University Avenue are symbolic of the dramatic shifts that have occurred over the past two years in Myanmar, which outside of North Korea was probably the most repressive and isolated country in the world, ruled for five decades by a military regime. Under the watchful eye of a new president, Thein Sein, Myanmar's military officially ended its rule, handing power to a civilian parliament. Thein Sein then inaugurated rapid reforms: he freed many of the country's political prisoners, launched efforts to achieve permanent peace with many insurgent armies, began opening up the media and the economy, and publicly called for exiles to return and rebuild the country, a tacit admission that years of military rule had impoverished what was once a promising economy. In April, Suu Kyi's party was allowed to compete in by-elections for a handful of parliamentary seats, for the first time since 1990. The party dominated the voting, winning 44 out of 46 seats. Suu Kyi herself took one seat, and now sits in parliament, a shocking development given that only two years ago she was locked in her home.

In response to this surprising shift, most western nations are re-engaging with the country. The US, European Union, Australia and Japan have already dropped some economic sanctions, and many companies are laying plans to invest heavily in Myanmar. Coca-Cola, General Electric and other big multinationals have already launched exploratory plans to get into Myanmar. In April, David Cameron, the British prime minister, became the first major western leader to visit the country in two decades. And yet, the pace of reform after so many years of repression, and the absence of any public explanation for why the military now decided to cede power, has left some citizens, and outside observers, both wary and thrilled.

If Myanmar could change so rapidly, what lessons might it offer for the world's other most repressive nations, countries with seemingly intractable problems and dictatorial rulers like North Korea, Uzbekistan, or Eritrea? Or, perhaps this Myanmar spring is as false as other brief periods of hope the country enjoyed. After all, despite the dramatic changes some nagging questions remain. Why has the military maintained the right to step back into power if need be? Why is the country seemingly intent on building a nuclear and missile programme? Why, as politics opens up has the military stepped up its war against several ethnic militias, leading to a refugee outflow from the country's north?

[E]ven the most astute observers in Myanmar are left wondering why these changes have occurred. No country was likely to invade Myanmar, the regime was sitting on piles of cash, and with Suu Kyi ageing, the NLD's leadership had been shattered by years of repression. What's more, the previous economic and financial sanctions imposed by the West had achieved little. Yet several Myanmar officials suggest that world events did have an impact, that the generals realised that, by working with Suu Kyi, they could avoid a troublesome fate.

"The events around the world [the Arab uprisings], the generals saw this," said Priscilla Clapp, a former US diplomat in Myanmar. In fact, by overseeing a managed transition, the generals could keep the vast wealth they had amassed illegally, and often deposited overseas - a lesson, potentially, for other dictatorships like Syria, where leaders are very reluctant to leave the scene. "We may want a process of justice and accountability [for the former military leaders] in Burma [Myanmar]," said one senior US official, "but they may feel they just want to move beyond the past."

Indeed, the generals seem to have made a wise move. Suu Kyi herself, despite her credentials as a critic of the regime, has reciprocated their trust. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, she played down the idea of severe punishment for the military rulers' past abuses, and called for forgiveness for their crimes, including those perpetrated against her.

In addition, the world around Myanmar began to change, helping, in a backwards kind of way, to create political change in the country - and perhaps in other long-standing dictatorships in Asia as well.

For nearly two decades, Myanmar had been dependent on China, even though many senior generals actually had little love for Beijing. Over time, as China became Myanmar's largest trading partner, and hundreds of thousands of migrants moved to Myanmar for business, average citizens also started to have second thoughts about that relationship. When I travelled through Mandalay, a city whose central business district is now dominated by Chinese guesthouses, Chinese-built malls, and Chinese vendors, I found resentment running very high. Some locals accused the Chinese of dumping products on the Myanmar market, or pushing locals out of flats and office spaces; others angrily complained that big Chinese companies were exploiting Myanmar's resources.

Beijing has also shed its hands-off foreign policy and adopted a much tougher approach. In the 2000s, China, still trying to win the friendship of its neighbours, lavished aid on countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others in the region, all the while insisting that China, unlike the bad old western powers, would respect other countries' concerns.

In a book of the same title, I called this winning Chinese diplomacy of the 2000s a "charm offensive". But, by the late 2000s and early 2010s, that charm had begun to fade. With the West reeling from economic downturn, China was no longer willing to simply play the noninterventionist card. Instead, it began to claim larger areas of disputed waters in South East Asia, to jostle with India over borders, to build dams on the upper portions of rivers that flowed into other countries, and to demand greater fealty from friends, asking that the Myanmar government crack down on cross-border refugee flows and drugs, offer China more favourable trade deals, and essentially carry China's water in regional organisations.

Increasingly worried about being so dependent on China, Myanmar's regime began to open up in order to court the West as a counter balance to Beijing. In a strange way then, since sanctions pushed the Myanmar government into the hands of China, and then the generals tired of their relationship, sanctions began to foster a rapprochement with western nations. Across Asia, the US government has taken advantage of countries' concerns about a rising, increasingly aggressive China, and the White House has used that fear to build stronger relationships with Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. 
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Posted by at July 6, 2012 4:58 AM

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