The beginnings of political transition in Burma?

Posted on | oktober 11, 2011 | No Comments

Suu Kyi on her trip to Bagan (courtesy of AP)

When Burma’s most prominent dissident and de facto opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released last November expectations of wider political reform were few and far between. Most viewed her release from house arrest as little more than a token gesture by the Burmese Junta to deflect criticism of the deeply flawed elections that had taken place just six days earlier. And yet something does seem to be happening in Burma, albeit slowly

Although Suu Kyi has kept a lower public profile since her release she has nevertheless been permitted to speak openly to western media organizations and in July she made her first trip outside Rangoon since her release. She was joined on the trip by her son Kim Aris, a British citizen, who had only been allowed to visit his mother for the first time in 10 years shortly after her release. The last time Suu Kyi traveled outside of the former capital in 2003 her party was brutally attacked by thugs from the Union Solidarity and Development Association and the Swan Ah Ashin militia killing 70 people. This time her trip passed without incident despite the fact that crowds of supporters flocked to see her when she made what was ostensibly a private trip to the temples in Bagan.

The most significant event however came on August 19th when Suu Kyi met with Burma’s new ‘civilian’ President Thein Sein, following two earlier meeting with the Labor Minister Aung Ki. The meeting, was broadcast on national television and culminated in a VIP dinner hosted by Thein Sein’s wife. Such a meeting would have been unthinkable barely a year ago when the Junta had been at great pains to marginalize the opposition leader. While such a meeting may not have resulted in any landmarks agreements the symbolic sugnificance of this should not be understated. Suu Kyi herself has said that she believes Thein Sein is committed to reform stating in an interview to a reporter from BBC World’s Burmese service, “I believe that the president wants to institute reforms, but how far these reforms will be able to go and how effective these will be, that still waits, still needs to be seen.”

In addition to the above ‘thaw’ in relations between the government and the opposition there have been additional signs of change. Some previously blocked websites have been made available, some foreign journalists allowed into the country on official visas (rather than surreptiously on tourist visas) and the UN special rapporteur on human rights, Tomas Quintana, was permitted to enter the country and meet with Suu Kyi for the first time since February 2010. There have alos been visits by several senior delegations of foreign politicians and diplomats including John McCain, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun; a high-ranking EU delegation; acting UN Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar; and Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexey Borodavkin. Meanwhile parliamentary committees have been reviewing hundreds of pieces of legislation and taking advice from international organizations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Unocha), as well as consulting with local NGOs.

Critics maintain that none of this has resulted in any actual political reform and that while the opening is welcome, over 2000 activists and pro-democracy supporters remain imprisoned in the country and the military continues attacks against the country’s ethnic minorities. Even here however there has been evidence of some shift in policy. Reports claim that Suu Kyi, the government and US officials have been discussing the possibility of releasing some 600 of these prisoners who the government has acknowledged for the first time as political prisoners.

It is too early to say why this thaw is taking place or where it might lead. Early suggestions argue that there are signs of divisions within the country’s political and military elite with Thein Sein allegedly siding with younger officers against Senior General Than Shwe and other hardliners. The motives of course seem clear, to end the economic and financial sanctions the EU and the US have imposed on Burma. So far Washington has cautiously welcomed the above developments and indicated that it may be willing to waive some prohibitions on assistance from financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. As the newly appointed Special Representative to Burma, Derek Mitchell said, “We’re going to meet their action with action… If they take steps, we will take steps to demonstrate that we are supportive of the path to reform.”

With so many false dawns in the past many remain deeply skeptical however events in recent months have taken most commentators by surprise and should nonetheless be welcomed. In the words of Chinese philosopher Laozi, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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