Burma’s march to democracy

In January, the European Union (EU) removed visa bans on Burmese political leaders, including the President and top government officials. This change in the EU’s policy and the visit of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to Burma in December 2011 signal a move towards integrating Burma into the international community.
Several recent developments — which include the re-entry of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) into the political process and the release of “important” political prisoners — have once again brought Burma into focus, though opinion is divided on the outcome of the country’s reform process. Some give the process a carte blanche saying that it’s irreversible, while others are of the view that these “cosmetic changes” are doomed to fail.
The reforms that have been shaping Burma since the October 2010 elections are definitely significant. For citizens who have lived under a culture of political impunity and remained isolated from the world, the recent changes are a watershed. The regime under President Thein Sein, while strongly backed by the military junta, is still far from following the democratic norms and principles accepted by the West, but it is the first government that is willing to take the initial, even if faltering, steps towards democracy.
On the domestic front, the government has set up the Human Rights Commission. If allowed to function independently, this could be a firm step towards democratic reforms. Several political prisoners detained for their activities against the junta have also been released through presidential pardon.
While about 1,000 political prisoners still remain in jails, this is a concrete step that needs to be consolidated further by laws that will allow political dissent. The government’s move to encourage free press is also a strong indication of change, though this process needs to be institutionalised if it is to be sustained.
One major advantage of all these measures is that such freedoms act as pressure valves, allowing dissent to be voiced and vented. This in turn opens up opportunities for political participation and correction of processes that limit democratic change.
The government’s announcement last month of a ceasefire with one of the country’s most prominent rebel groups representing the Karen minority ethnic group is also significant. Ethnic minorities in Burma have remained largely marginalised, especially the Karens. This ceasefire signals a new approach to addressing the issue of ethnic rights and the inclusion of minorities in the political process.
The most crucial step taken by the Thein Sein government in the last few months was the official recognition of the NLD as a political party. The NLD was not allowed to participate in politics since 1990 and its own unwillingness to participate in the 2010 elections meant that it remained outside the electoral process.
However, following Ms Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in November 2010, and negotiations between her and the Thein Sein regime since August 2011, the NLD is becoming more visible. During Ms Clinton’s visit, Ms Suu Kyi clearly stated that the international community needed to support and encourage the reform process within Burma.
While some observers have taken this as an indication of Ms Suu Kyi’s political attrition, including her becoming a pawn in the hands of the Thein Sein regime, there is no doubt that dialogue is leading to a more open approach to the democratisation process. This is especially important given that the West looks at Ms Suu Kyi as the “messiah” in the Burmese political process. And that’s precisely why the Thein Sein regime has brought her into the forefront as a supporting voice for the reforms shaping Burma. Rather than seeing this negatively, this could well turn out to be a win-win situation for both groups.
The approaches of the EU and the US towards Burma hinges on other factors as well. With the US’ re-engagement in Southeast Asia over the past three years, only one country remained out of the framework in the entire region — Burma. American endorsement for the changes shaping Southeast Asia were incomplete because of the fault-line that Burma represented. For the US, the concern is not merely the democratisation process.
The worry about Burma’s links to China and its growing reliance on North Korea forced the US to rethink its position of keeping Burma in isolation.
It is important to understand here the urgency for the endorsement of Burma’s reform process: competition for Burma’s untapped natural resources. Over the last three years, economic slowdown in the West has led to a search for new investment potential and the opportunities of investing in Burma seem very lucrative for the next few decades.
This is an important factor that is altering the West’s view on continued imposition of sanctions against Burma. Sanctions were seen as a means to pressurise democratic change, but now with the changed political approach of the Thein Sein regime, sanctions are under scrutiny.
Moreover, during the years when economic sanctions were imposed, it was not the regime that suffered, but the people. In November 2010, Ms Suu Kyi, in her address to the World Economic Forum, urged the Western countries to increase their investments in Burma, clearly signalling that the rationale for sanctions had not been achieved.
Burma is in transition — any change must occur over a period of time, and the stakeholders in the process of change in Burma need to be patient, allowing change to take root.
Darkness can be dispelled by lighting a candle. The first flicker of light in the Burmese context may be coming from a very small flame, but if carried with care it will burn bright.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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