How far can Burma bend for change?

Peter Hartcher | October 18, 2011
The Age

One of the world’s most famous champions of freedom, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, spent most of the past 21 years under house arrest, considered a pariah by the military dictators who cancelled elections, shut down free speech and cut Burma off from the democratic world.

A year ago it was forbidden to print her name in a newspaper. But now, the long-suffering Nobel peace prize winner is not only allowed her freedom, she was invited to a well-publicised dinner with the President and his wife. The beginning of a liberalisation in one of Asia’s most repressive countries, or a manipulative gimmick to trick the world into easing tough sanctions?

When Suu Kyi was released last November and the first ”democratic elections” in 19 years were held, nobody believed that there was serious reform under way in the country that now calls itself Myanmar, population 55 million.

The elections were held under a new constitution that gives the military permanent dominance. As expected, pro-military parties won overwhelmingly. The whole exercise was dismissed by Western governments as a fraud. The ageing military dictator, General Than Shwe, handed power to a slightly younger former general, Thein Sein, in March, and nobody paid much attention.

The new President gave his inaugural address to Parliament declaring his intention to fight poverty, curtail corruption, end armed conflicts and achieve political reconciliation. But he was given about as much credence as the China’s constitutional guarantees of democratic freedom.

But reforms have been flowing fast. The press has been freed up somewhat. Access to foreign news websites such as the BBC has been allowed. Suu Kyi has been allowed to travel and speak freely and widely and in security. A satirist who had bedevilled the regime for years, and been jailed for even longer, was released. Foreign journalists have been granted unprecedented access.

The UN’s special envoy to Burma, Tomas Quintana, had been banned from the country after last year calling for a UN special inquiry into whether the regime was guilty of crimes against humanity. This year, he was not only allowed back and given all the access he asked for, the regime even took his advice and created a human rights commission. Remarkably, the commission has since issued a call for the release of political prisoners.

In July, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, told President Thein Sein this would be the single most transformative step the regime could take to signal serious intent of political reform.

Thein Sein has now released some 200 to 220 political prisoners, according to the best estimate of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. About another 1800 remain, however, and activists are unconvinced: ”Such amnesties are not new,” Zetty Brake, of Burma Campaign Australia, says. ”In the past, these releases have never been an indicator that change is on the way. They have been used by the dictatorship to try and secure positive publicity in order to ease international pressure.”

The question of political prisoners will remain an acid test of regime intentions, and yet, with each passing day, it is becoming harder to sustain the argument that change in Burma is tokenistic.

State pensions for nearly a million people, mostly poor, have increased dramatically. Microfinance, the system for giving loans of as little as $20 or $100 to the very poor to allow them to start small ventures such as breeding chickens or opening stalls, has been legalised. Trade unions, long banned, have been legalised, a ”momentous policy decision” according to the International Labour Organisation’s representative in Burma, Steve Marshall.

Some reforms have been ”previously unimaginable” in the words of a Burmese historian and former UN official, Thant Myint. ”What we’re seeing today is Myanmar’s best chance in half a century for a better future,” he argues.

One of the ”previously unimaginable” decisions to emerge from Burma was the suspension of a $US3.6 billion project, financed by China, to build a major dam across the Irrawaddy River. This is a touchstone for both Burma’s domestic politics and its international strategy and diplomacy. Certainly for China, Burma’s biggest trading partner and chief ally and protector, this is a very serious matter.

It was not only the terms of the announcement. Thein Sein said in a note to the parliament that he was suspending construction for the duration of his term – to 2015 – because the dam was being built ”against the will of the people.” Since when had anything been done in Burma according to the ”will of the people”?

It was also the importance of the project. The dam was to generate 6000 megawatts of electricity, 90 per cent of which was to flow across the border to China. So, too, according to activist groups, were 70 per cent of the profits. Beijing is unimpressed at this abrupt change in Burma’s priorities. Its foreign ministry has expressed hope that any decisions on the project will be made ”in consultation” with China.

For the Burmese people, it is one of the most potent political issues. The Myitsone Dam would have drowned fertile rice paddies, dislocated tens of thousands of ethnic Kachin people, and destroyed sites that archaeologists claim are the most important for understanding the origins of Burmese history and culture.

Thein Sein appears to have sided decisively with his people against Beijing. This seems the hardest evidence yet that he is not just an extension of the old repression but a new force seeking popular support and political legitimacy.

The world is now paying serious attention. The new US special envoy to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, said ”if they take steps, we will take steps to demonstrate that we are supportive of the path to reform.”

Washington is now moving to improve diplomatic relations, but not yet to lift sanctions.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have long refused to aid Burma. Rudd told the Herald that ”it’s well worth reconsidering engagement with Burma” for the two biggest international lenders, but Australia was not yet ready to reconsider its own sanctions on Burma.

How far can Thein Sein go in offering Burma some real hope for freedom and prosperity? How far will Burma’s military allow him to go? The world is pleasantly surprised but, like Suu Kyi herself, wary: ”I’d like to see a few more turns before I decide whether or not the wheels are moving along.”

Peter Hartcher is the Sydney Morning Herald’s international editor.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Friday, 21 October 2011 - 9:36 pm

    “The press has been freed up somewhat”
    In Malaysia freeing the press …spells the end of half truths and lies churned out by UMNO b.
    Imagine Burma once least 20 years behind Malaysia is catching up fast.
    It shows corruptions must end sometime…but in Malaysia it is on going…for they need money to buy loyalties …buy votes plus personal greediness for more and money to live like royalties.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Saturday, 22 October 2011 - 9:57 am

    D president very smart ooh, no want 2 end like Gaddafi dug out fr a hole n b executed

  3. #3 by dagen on Saturday, 22 October 2011 - 10:05 am

    We can see loads of foreign workers in our country. The indons were the earliest here. Then we have the filipinas, the banglas, the pakistanis, the nepalis, the vietnamese, the burmese and cambodians. Of these lot, the burmese are the only ones setting up shops in downtown kl and doing business. Groceries. Restaurants. Travel agencies. And many many more, I believe (for I cant read their signboards). After decades of umno-style oppression and suppression by the burnese military gobermen, and without the benefit of petroleum (burma has little petroleum) the country did not quite collapse. This is because the burmese are resilient and hard working. With the present development taking place we can expect burma to overtake malaysia (if still under umno) in 15 yrs. By then I am sure we would have fallen behind thailand, indonesia, vietnam and perhaps even cambodia and brunei. In which case then umno would only have laos, east timur, fiji island and some other small nations to laugh at.

  4. #4 by boh-liao on Saturday, 22 October 2011 - 10:53 am

    Burmese very smart 1 n hard working too
    They can pick up languages fast, we C them in stalls n shops, at first no speako BM, canton, hokkien, but after a few months, wah lao, can oredi speako fluently enuf 2 do business
    They can run d food stalls by themselves, while stall owners start more new stalls
    Business grows macam ini leh, with no help fr NEP 1

  5. #5 by monsterball on Saturday, 22 October 2011 - 12:41 pm

    Ours are not allowed to be smart and hardworking…because the country is governed by lazy cunning crooks and thieves.

  6. #6 by monsterball on Saturday, 22 October 2011 - 12:57 pm

    Circumstances are favoring changes….and our Government is feeling the heat…keep talking nonsense for years….keep trying to fool Malaysians..for votes and trust them.

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