Fri 30 Sep 2011
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Democracy campaigners say halting the Myitsone dam project does not mean the regime has changed its spots.President Thein Sein’s decision to risk China’s wrath and yield to public pressure to suspend the controversial Myitsone dam project will be hailed in some quarters as the latest sign that the political dynamic in Burma is changing for the better after decades of autocratic rule. But democracy campaigners urge caution, saying the revamped regime has not really changed its spots and has yet to take concrete, irreversible steps towards reform.
Thein Sein was elected to the presidency in national polls held last November that were widely dismissed as a sham. The main opposition, the National League for Democracy led by the Nobel peace prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi, was barred from taking part. In March the military junta that has ruled Burma since 1990 supposedly handed over its powers to a civilian-led government. Since then, there have been encouraging signs of change, according to a report by the independent International Crisis Group (ICG).
“In a speech on 19 August, the president made clear that his goal is to build a modern and developed democratic nation,” the report said. The “refreshingly honest” speech showed “strong signs of heralding a new kind of political leadership in Myanmar [Burma], setting a completely different tone for governance and allowing discussions and initiatives that were unthinkable only a few months ago”.
The ICG study suggested that an amnesty for an estimated 2,100 political prisoners was on the cards, following positive government moves aimed at “reinvigorating the economy, reforming national politics and improving human rights”. The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to give this year’s BBC Reith Lectures unimpeded, and has since met Thein Sein for talks, has also been interpreted as an important step forward.
The ICG said it was now incumbent on western governments that had been consistently hostile to the junta to encourage the reform process. “At the very minimum this should include a less cautious political stance and the encouragement of multilateral agencies, including international financial institutions and the UN Development Programme, to do as much as possible under existing mandate restrictions,” it said.
But Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK, longstanding advocates of democratic reform, said the “small changes” so far should be treated with extreme caution. The Burmese government’s main aims remained the lifting of western sanctions and confirmation of its chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014 – which would go a long way towards normalising the country’s international position. The regime was not genuinely interested in building a democracy or improving the human rights situation, he said.
“As prime minister Thein Sein was in charge of drafting the new constitution that legalised dictatorship,” Farmaner said. “Since the elections there have been three broken ceasefires, with the Kachin, Karen and Shan minorities, a massive increase in army attacks on ethnic groups, and a sharp rise in gang rapes involving women and children. The regime does not accept it holds any political prisoners. You could argue the human rights situation is getting worse.”
Farmaner conceded there had been a “very slight” improvement in some areas, such as media controls, but that this, too, was part of an attempt to regain international legitimacy and neutralise the NLD. The dam was not a political issue, he argued. The project was opposed on environmental grounds and Thein Sein had become increasingly fearful that it could act as a trigger for broader popular discontent.
Both Farmaner and the ICG agree there is a long way to go before reform triumphs in Burma. And while Asean countries may use recent upbeat signals to justify their long-held, ill-disguised wish to normalise relations, western governments are treading carefully so far. Senior US officials met Burma’s foreign minister in Washington this week, a meeting that in itself signalled a thaw. But a spokesman, Mark Toner, said American policy had not shifted, not yet at least. “We haven’t changed our basic approach. Our policy is still a dual track approach with sanctions but also with principled engagement.”