Friday, September 30, 2011

Progress report on Myanmar

THERE is mounting excitement about developments in Myanmar, after a summer of carefully choreographed meetings between the country’s normally shy, quasi-military rulers and...well, just about everyone else. Western diplomats and special envoys, American politicians (Republicans at that), UN folk: all have been allowed in and out to have face-to-face talks with Myanmar’s new ministers in order to assess whether the much vaunted political transformation there is real this time, or just another chimera. Just as significantly, government ministers and the new president, Thein Sein, have held unprecedented meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, that icon of democracy and leader of the unofficial opposition—the generals even let her publish an article in a Burmese newspaper, the first time that’s happened for 23 years. For her part, she has said that the president wants to “achieve real positive change”.

If not quite a summer of love, all this certainly amounts to a step forward in Myanmar’s international rehabilitation. And last week there was another big boost for the optimists, with the publication of a report entitled “Myanmar: Major Reform Under Way” by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an influential Brussels-based think-tank. There’s nothing cynical or cautious about the tone of this report; the authors argue that “the political will appears to exist to bring fundamental change” to the country, and that “after 50 years of autocratic rule, [the country’s rulers] show strong signs of heralding a new kind of political leadership in Myanmar—setting a completely different tone for governance in the country and allowing discussions and initiatives that were unthinkable only a few months ago.”

Heady stuff—if true. However, having spoken to a couple of those who met with the generals this summer, I have the impression that the ICG is getting ahead of itself here. It’s true that the government seems eager to meet and listen to a range of people (including Ms Suu Kyi) who were off-limits only recently. But so far the government has taken almost none of the concrete stops that the West (and Ms Suu Kyi) are looking for as examples (or “benchmarks” in the diplomatic jargon) of real progress towards the sunny uplands of the new democratic, pluralistic society that the generals claim they want. In other words, so far it’s almost all words—unusually positive, and even uncensored words, but mere words nonetheless. So far, nothing has been said or done that couldn’t easily be reversed. So although most of their Western interlocutors have been encouraged by what they have seen and heard on their visits to Myanmar, there are still plenty of reasons to remain cautious and tread wearily.

Take the issue of political prisoners. The release of up to 2,000 such prisoners (mainly democracy activists and members of Ms Suu Kyi’s banned political party) is a central demand of the government’s critics. Diplomats who spoke with Myanmar’s official representatives in New York last week say that the Burmese actually discussed a list of 500 or so people that might at some point be released, but cautioned that it’s still a case of wait-and-see. Or take the issue of the ethnic conflicts on the eastern periphery of Myanmar, in Kachin, Shan and Kayin states. These have, if anything, worsened over the past year, with a rise in human-rights abuses by the Burmese army—hardly signs of a government hell-bent on fundamentally changing its ways.

Nonetheless, both sides, Myanmar’s generals and the West, are now at least engaged in a delicate diplomatic minuet—which might yield results in the future. The ICG argues that the West should take the lead with Myanmar, offering, for example, economic and financial engagement now, so at so encourage the reformers within the government. Most Western governments, however, are still waiting for more substantial signs of reform before they offer anything with cash value in exchange.

What is undoubtedly true is that if the Myanmar government does decide to make a dramatic move (release the 2,000 political prisoners, for example) then such a head of steam has built up in the West towards rethinking the old sanctions regimes that Western diplomats will have to relent. And so they should—the West has little to show for its decades-long shunning of Myanmar, other than having handed over much of the country to China. A deal is clearly there to be done. As always though, it’s how you get there that matters just as much as the outlines of the deal itself. Just ask the long-suffering advocates of a two-state solution in Palestine. Banyan for The Economist

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