Fri 29 Jan 2010
Filed under: Opinion,Other
The New Year brings a slender ray of hope for a benighted part of the world. But in Burma, every silver lining has alongside it a dark cloud.The ultrarepressive military junta that has ruled the country since 1962 (and has unilaterally renamed it Myanmar) recently announced that it will free in November that global symbol of nonviolent resistance, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But there’s a catch here: The release will take place a month after a sham election will probably be held, barring Suu Kyi from participating.
Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further eighteen months of house arrest in August after a bizarre episode in which the Burmese military accused her of conspiring with an American who swam to her home. Suu Kyi has been kept in custody for fourteen of the past twenty years.
Interestingly, the announcement comes in the wake of a reorientation of U.S.-Burma policy over the past year. After a nine-month review, the Obama Administration said that it would engage with the junta while simultaneously maintaining the sanctions regime put into place by President Clinton. To this end, it has held two round of talks with the dictatorship.
But is the Obama approach working? Depends on whom you ask. Nehginpao Kipgen, a U.S.-based Burmese activist, commends the change in policy and asks that the Obama Administration go further down that path.
“Though there is still much uncertainty surrounding Burma’s political future, it is important that the U.S. government continues to engage,” Kipgen writes. “A meaningful dialogue between the military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, must be encouraged, with the ultimate goal of paving the way to national reconciliation.”
On the other side, Nick Cohen of the London Observer condemns the Obama Administration’s silence about the solitary confinement of Burmese-American Nyi Nyi Aung as capitulation to a pathetic regime in the name of engagement.
“As Mark Farmaner from the Burma Campaign UK group says, European and Asian countries which don’t give a damn about human rights and just want to make money aren’t feeling any pressure from Washington to blacklist the [Burmese] regime,” Cohen writes. “The hope that Burmese democracy campaigners felt at Obama’s election has long gone.”
In some sense, this is a continuation of a debate that has raged within the Burmese democracy movement for ages. Suu Kyi, the global symbol of the democracy struggle in Burma, has called for international isolation of Burma. Her position has been contested by the grandson of another Burmese icon, Burmese-American Thant Myint-U, whose grandfather was U Thant, the U.N. Secretary-General from 1961 to 1971.
The true test of the Obama Administration’s new Burma policy will be if anything does indeed change for the better in that nation by the end of the year. For the moment, one can only be bleakly optimistic.