Fri 29 May 2009
Filed under: News,Opinion,Other
In a bizarre twist to the never-ending saga of abuse against Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy Opposition leader, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the ruling military junta has placed her on trial just before the May 27, 2009 deadline to release her from house arrest. Placed under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years, Ms Suu Kyi represents lasting hope for change from a politically-rigid military system which has kept Burma isolated from much of the international community for over 45 years.
Under both international and Burma’s national law on arbitrary detention, Ms Suu Kyi’s term of house arrest was to end on May 27, after which the junta could not hold her in custody. Just as that deadline was approaching, there was a murky and unexplained intrusion into her residential compound by an uninvited American.
The intrusion leaves her more susceptible vis-Ã -vis her opponents and strongly questions the validity of the allegations brought against her. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial is a grim reminder that Burma continues on its path of self-destruction and human tragedy with little regard for international opinion and censure. The recent setback also indicates that the junta’s promise of holding elections in 2010 remains a remote possibility.
For the last 19 years, Burma’s protracted political impasse remains a problem both at the domestic level and for the international community at large. This intransigence has been made even more complicated by the demand of the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Ms Suu Kyi, that the electoral verdict of the 1990 elections be upheld and that political power be handed over to the NLD. This claim was initially supported by the United States of America and the European Union. However, given the time lapsed since then, and the changed scenario of Burma’s interaction with its regional players, there is little feasibility of getting the junta to recognise the 1990 verdict and to act upon it. The US and the EU both realise this. Also, in light of the crackdown against the monks’ protest in September 2007, and the subsequent unwillingness to accept international assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Nargis, the imperviousness of the junta becomes very clear.
The insistence of the regional players that Burma accept humanitarian assistance at least ensured a two-pronged approach to the political and the humanitarian crisis. The recent extension of the mandate given to the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) overseeing the rehabilitation is a welcome step but the political manipulations of the junta do not mitigate its stand on this issue. And, pushing forward the new Constitution and the fraudulent referendum are clear indicators that there is no willingness on the part of the regime to include any form of national reconciliation with the political voices in Burma.
Given the unchanging reality of the Burmese military junta, tackling the problem remains an enigma for both regional and international actors. In an attempt to look for a way out, there have been suggestions of following the six-party talks formulation, as in the case of North Korea. While this will include both China and Japan, the actual change in approach from these two are not likely to be significant. However, from the point of view of the current impasse, the three remaining key players will have to take cognisance of their approach to Burma. These are the US, the Asean (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Burma and Cambodia) and India.
For the first time in over two decades, the US is beginning to show willingness to change its approach to Burma. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s statement during her first foreign visit on a new approach to Burma seemed to find resonance in the April 2009 visit of the director of the office of mainland Southeast Asia, Stephen Blake, to Burma.
Simultaneously, the US deputy secretary of state James Steinberg stated that the US hoped to initiate a new strategy for Burma after consultations with other Asian countries which would act as a roadmap to assist Burma out of international isolation. In the aftermath of Ms Suu Kyi’s recent setback, the US senate has passed an emergency resolution asking for the immediate release for Daw Suu Kyi and other political dissidents. It has also urged the Obama administration to increase its diplomatic efforts among the regional players to bring pressure on Burma to uphold the principles of human rights.
For the Asean the latest stand-off will be a litmus test.
During the 2007 monks’ protest, Asean did not bring much pressure on Burma because domestic matters do not fall within the purview of its jurisdiction. However, the adoption of the Asean Charter should indicate a willingness to take a more effective stand. This is a situation when the Asean can balance its “constructive engagement” approach with effective preventive diplomacy. Suspending Burma from the Asean till the time the junta moves towards a more inclusive national reconciliation process will show that the regional organisation is serious in its approach to protect the principles enshrined in the Charter.
For India too this offers a clear test. India and Burma’s economic ties have been growing over the past decade. This was founded on the grounds that Burma offered geographical contiguity for India with its Southeast Asian neighbours. The recent visit of India’s vice-president Hamid Ansari to Burma indicates growing economic potential, particularly in the areas of energy sector cooperation and infrastructure.
The volume of trade between India and Burma touched $995 million in 2007-08. India is Burma’s fourth-largest trading partner and its second biggest export market. Given the volume of economic ties and the security implications for India’s Northeast, the compulsions of realpolitik have far outweighed the option of taking a principled approach to issues of human rights and democratisation. India remains selective in voicing its angst against human rights violations across the globe.
But it is of vital importance to address human tragedies in a coherent and principled manner and this must be critically endorsed within our foreign policy, without bias as to where it happens and who it affects.
Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU