Burma is ‘where South Africa was in 1990,’ says Aung
San Suu Kyi
Do Burma’s recent reforms represent “almost unimaginable change” or are they “easily reversible tactical manoeuvres” to secure an end to Western sanctions?
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (above) should know.
The country’s tentative reform process is comparable to “where South Africa was in 1990″ as it approached the end of apartheid, she said today.
“I know we are not there yet, but we can see the way clear ahead more than we have ever been able to,” she said.
“People feel more relaxed about participating in politics. They aren’t frightened as they used to be,” said Suu Kyi. Activists can engage in the political process “without endangering themselves too much,” she said, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Her comments came as the pro-democracy icon met the new U.S. special envoy to Burma who is pushing the nominally-civilian government to maintain its recent reforms and release more political prisoners. President Barack Obama appointed Derek Mitchell as the US special representative in mid-April 2011 after his administration adopted a twin-track approach that aims to integrate sanctions and engagement to promote democratic reform in Burma.
Recent developments have given Suu Kyi considerable leverage as the most credible authority for Western democracies as they reconsider their Burma policies.
“By playing her cards very well, she’s put herself in a position she hasn’t been in a long time, of being the arbiter,” said Sean Turnell, a Burma analyst at Australia’s Macquarie University. Since the West will only lift sanctions if confirms that the reform process is genuine, “they’re looking to her to say yes it is, or it isn’t.”
The government has established a National Human Rights Commission, released political prisoners, adopted a law permitting independent labor unions, invited exiled dissidents to return home, allowed access to foreign news and opposition websites, and eased media censorship, even permitting interviews with dissidents in domestic news outlets.
“This is as good as it gets – a military regime deciding not to be a military regime anymore,” said Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s deputy foreign minister, who met senior officials and Suu Kyi on a recent trip to Burma. “It may be the start of a rough ride. But it’s not fake. There’s something real going on.”
But many Burmese democracy and civil society activists insist that the reforms are largely cosmetic, noting that only a fraction of imprisoned dissidents were released.
“Many other prominent political prisoners such as Min Ko Naing, U Khun Tun Oo, U Gambira and so on were not included among those released,” said the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, which estimates that there are 2,100 political detainees.
While largely incremental, the reforms may indicate a broader strategic shift in government thinking, some observers believe.
“There is a fundamental rethinking of the political direction of the country,” says Richard Horsey, who spent several years in Burma with the UN’s International Labor Organization. “We should see this as a transition. It’s not a flick of the switch from authoritarianism to a fully open society. But the intention is to undertake a far-reaching liberalization of governance in the country.”
The reform process may be genuine, but it is also fragile and reversible, analysts suggest.
“A fledgling political pluralism exists—too young and insecure to be called ‘democracy’ although officially it has been dubbed ‘discipline-flourishing democracy,’” says Georgetown University’s David I. Steinberg.
“These changes are real,” he contends, “although they may be ephemeral should more conservative and high-ranking military officials feel they have gone too far, and that their paramount position is threatened along with that of the military as an institution.”
Many activists in the opposition National League for Democracy remain wary of the regime, but are testing the limits of the new-found political space.
The party is “thinking about how we can co-operate with the government and what we can do for democracy and human rights,” says NLD activist and former political Nyan Win. “We are optimistic that the present government wants to change towards democracy.”
But the reform process may be brought to a halt if it begins to threaten the vested interests of the bureaucracy and military which have benefited from endemic corruption in the mineral-rich country.
“There are going to be a lot of people who will be unhappy once reforms take place, as their interests will be exposed. So the potential for reaction is there,” says Professor Sean Turnell of the Australian National University.
The authenticity of the reform process will be evident in the new institutions’ responsiveness to citizens’ demands, including former political prisoners’ demands for justice. As Democratic Voice of Burma reports:
Aung Than Htun spent three and a half years of a five-year sentence in Irrawaddy division’s Myaungmya prison for his work with the opposition National League for Democracy, before being released on 12 October. Now, he says, he will submit case material to the government-backed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) documenting extensive abuse in the prison.
The government’s tolerance of free trade unions will be gauged by its response should the exiled Federation of Trade Unions of Burma resume its activities. Union leader Myo Aung Thant – one of several union activists released under the recent amnesty – was sentenced to life imprisonment for labor organizing in 1998. As recently as 2003, two FTUB activists were sentenced to death for providing information on forced labor to the ILO.
Western democracies should reserve judgment and maintain sanctions until the country’s political trajectory is confirmed. As the opposition newspaper Irrawaddy notes:
The US has also made it clear that it won’t lift sanctions on Burma until all of the country’s political prisoners, including leading dissidents such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, are freed and serious steps are taken to end violence and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas. The US administration is also expecting the country’s military-dominated Parliament to make changes in the party registration law that will allow Suu Kyi’s disbanded National League for Democracy party to participate in the country’s political process.
“Those are obviously very, very important moves that would lead to American gestures, steps in return,” he said.
US envoy Mitchell plans to “visit Burma frequently to build on our ongoing principled engagement, including dialogue with the Burmese government and local stakeholders,” said a US embassy spokeswoman in Rangoon. “He uses every opportunity to raise with Burmese authorities our longstanding core concerns,” she said, including the release of all political prisoners and dialogue with opposition and ethnic minority groups.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.