Mon 31 Jan 2011
Filed under: Editorial,Opinion,Other
For the second week in a row the big news story is a crumbling dictatorship in the Middle East. While it’s still to soon to say if Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak will share the same fate as Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, yesterday protesters controlled many parts of Cairo. Mr Mubarak has vowed he will not be removed, and as long as the military stands with him, he is probably right.
The situation is similar to one much closer to home, in Burma, where the chances of regime change seem much more remote. If anything, the political situation in Burma is more dismal. In Burma, of course, it is the military leadership who actually have the ruling power, despite the pretence of transferring power to a civilian government through the sham elections of last November.
The parliament elected then will begin its duties in the new capital of Naypyidaw tomorrow, but the military leaders have made sure it will act as a rubber stamp to all they propose.
In Burma, as perhaps in Egypt, there would probably have to be a mass defection in the lower ranks of the military along with a popular revolt to bring about a change in government. But as revealed in the story on page 10 of this week’s Spectrum, ”Film offers glimpse of dissent in army”, this might not be as far-fetched many people might think.
There are other parallels between the situations in Burma and Egypt. Before Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei returned to his native Egypt to take part in the protests there and was put under house arrest _ much like Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi _ he gave an interview in Austria. Mr Baradei noted that Egypt had parliamentary elections only two months ago, and ”they were completely rigged. The party of President Hosni Mubarak left the opposition with only 3%. Imagine that. And the American government said that it was dismayed. Well, frankly, I was dismayed that all it could say is that it was dismayed. The word was hardly adequate to express the way the Egyptian people felt.”
If we substitute Egypt for Burma and America for Asean, the story looks familiar.
Like the US and other Western nations, Thailand in particular has long found it politically and financially expedient to do business with a repressive regime while periodically offering mild reproaches.
When Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva went to Naypyidaw and was photographed shaking hands with Senior General Than Shwe last October, it was clear from the look on the PM’s face that he wouldn’t be framing the photo and hanging it over his mantle.
But Mr Abhisit put whatever misgivings he may have had aside and thought instead of the benefits that greater trade and investment in Burma would bring to Thai companies, one of which has the contract to develop the deep-sea port in Dawei, on Burma’s stretch of the Andaman Sea. Mr Abhisit is no different than previous Thai premiers who have made similar economic calculations, just as Barack Obama is no different from his predecessors who compromised themselves over Egypt, although in the case of the US, the considerations have been driven as much by security as economics.
The point is not that Thailand should cut off relations with Burma entirely. It is likely better to try to effect change through engagement, and particularly to insist on high environmental and human rights standards for any projects with Thai investment.
Mrs Suu Kyi herself has not condemned foreign investment in Burma outright. In fact, in an audio message to the affluent crowd at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, she encouraged it, if it is done with a conscience.
”I would like to request those who have invested or who are thinking of investing in Burma to put a premium on respect for the law, on environmental and social factors, on the rights of workers, on job creation and on the promotion of technological skills,” she said.
The Thai government says it does regard these areas as a priority, but it’s not clear that this has been expressed in any formal agreements or contracts involving Burma.