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Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011
A shift in Myanmar
Something is happening in Myanmar. The government in that reclusive country has recently taken a number of steps that suggest change may be afoot. It is too soon to tell how substantial and enduring the changes will be, but they must be acknowledged and encouraged. It is time to engage the government in Naypyidaw and test its commitment to real reform.
Military governments have ruled Myanmar since 1962. Their systemic violation of the people's will earned them international censure and isolation. (To be fair, the rulers of Myanmar have never been inclined to engage the world, either.) The first suggestions that change might be afoot came a few years ago when the government wrote a new constitution that would pave the way to civilian rule. Most observers considered that a sham, especially when most of the country's new leaders had only recently donned mufti.
Elections were held last November and, as predicted, military-backed parties and individuals dominated the new parliament. Yet since taking office in March, the government of President Thein Sein has taken steps that suggest that the change is more than just cosmetic.
In August, Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi was invited to the capital to talk to the president; this followed her release from seven years of house arrest 11 months ago. Exiles have been invited home to rejoin the political process; the NLD, which refused to contest last year's elections because it believed they were rigged — and was subsequently delisted as a legal political party — was invited to reregister.
A new national human rights commission, made up of retired bureaucrats and academics, has been set up. This was followed by the visit of the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, the first time he has been allowed to visit in over a year. Censorship of some foreign media has stopped. Earlier this month, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reprinted an open letter from the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission that called for the release of "prisoners of conscience" who pose no threat to "public tranquility." The government followed that with the start on Wednesday of the release of nearly 6,400 prisoners. In the first batch of released prisoners were 198 of the country's estimated 2,000 political prisoners. Even Ms. Suu Kyi has conceded that "We are beginning to see the beginning of change."
Finally, and among the most surprising developments, is the decision in September by the Myanmar government to suspend construction of a $3.6 billion dam being built with China. The dam was a controversial project because its location on the Irrawaddy River was seen as defacing the birthplace of the Burmese nation and because it signaled China's growing influence in the country.
The rest of the world should reciprocate the signs of change in Myanmar. Much of the West has kept its distance from the new government, believing that it is just the redressing of the old order in new clothes. Sanctions remain in place and the prevailing tone is one of skepticism.
But the door is open. The West is talking to senior Myanmar officials — who were left off the list of individuals subject to sanctions in Europe. The United States has created a new special envoy for Myanmar and Myanmar's foreign minister visited Washington last month. Speaking in Bangkok days ago, Mr. Kurt Campbell, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Asia, said that Myanmar is witnessing "dramatic developments" and the U.S. is ready to revamp ties — "match their steps" — with the country. But real progress, said Mr. Campbell, depends on the release of political prisoners, the end of human rights abuses, dialogue with democracy supporters and ethnic groups, and answering questions about the country's nuclear program.
The West has leverage. Sanctions have taken a bite and while it is too early to lift them, those governments could take a neutral stand on (or even encourage) international lending institutions resuming their aid to Myanmar. (This would also have the benefit of reducing the country's dependence on China.) The U.N. human rights representative has called for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry into suspected crimes against humanity and war crimes in the country. That vote will come before the United Nations this year and while the West should not be seen as being cynical about such issues, if the NLD supports abstention in the name of domestic political dialogue, then Western governments can heed its wishes.
Of course, the most important question is whether there is real change in Myanmar or this is mere window dressing to exploit a moment of opportunity. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell. Decision making in Naypyidaw remains opaque and it is hard to tell who is in charge. But the signs are promising and friends of Myanmar's long-suffering 60 million people, the poorest in Asia, deserve the benefit of the doubt. The key is a step-by-step process that matches Myanmar's moves with those of its critics. This moment must not be wasted.