A Brave New Burma?
Image Credit: Nic Dunlop

A Brave New Burma?


Last November, President Obama visited Burma, meeting reformist President Thein Sein and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But as the pace of change in the Southeast Asian country accelerates, human rights groups have criticized governments for being too quick to reward the new regime in pursuit of their own strategic and economic interests. This begs the question: Have the West and Aung San Suu Kyi abandoned their principled stand on Burma?

After Burma’s elections in 2010, reforms swept the country. Amnesty was granted to hundreds of political prisoners, new labor laws were created and press censorship was relaxed. After spending 15 years under house arrest, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi was released, joining the political mainstream as a member of parliament.

Once freed, Suu Kyi made her first trip to Europe in 24 years. She accepted her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, 21 years after it was awarded, and addressed both houses of parliament in London. After Europe, she went to the United States where she was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, meeting President Obama and a host of other politicians and public figures.

In response to Burma’s reforms, most sanctions have been lifted. Washington has normalized relations with Burma more quickly than in other cases of U.S. rapprochement since the Cold War, including post apartheid South Africa.

For years it was Suu Kyi’s courageous stand against Burma’s military dictatorship that informed Western policy. During nearly two decades of house arrest, she became a global icon, described by Amnesty International as a “human rights superstar.” The regime, by contrast, was regularly rebuked for its human rights record.

The release of political prisoners in Burma was one of the first steps toward dialogue between the military junta and Suu Kyi. Although several hundred were released, more are still being held, while threats and intimidation continue.

As the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma reported, the government “continues to use arbitrary arrest as a tool to hold members of the democracy and human rights movement behind bars often without formal charges.”

Another pre-requisite for dialogue with the regime was a tripartite dialogue between Suu Kyi, ethnic insurgents and the junta, which aimed to bring an end to the world’s longest running civil war. But this too was abandoned. Despite several ceasefires among insurgent groups, fighting continues in the north.

In 2011, just as reforms were ushered in, a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Burmese military broke down. In the ensuing violence, more than 100,000 people fled their homes. It was a pattern that had previously befallen ceasefire agreements in other parts of the country where underlying grievances remained unaddressed.

Jim Placzek
March 6, 2013 at 02:47

I was going to make a comment that this article was a useful review of the situation, balanced, but nothing really new.  After reading the comment stream, (well, some of it until I realized that most of it was just personal attacks, often irrelevant, and quite boring) I realized that the main point made in the article was Suu Kyi's role switch from icon to politician, idealist to pragmatist.  In fact, she has always been careful to walk a centrist line, aware that the alternative was all-out nationwide civil war with years more of death and destruction.  Working to reduce the fears of the elite and the military of a more democratic system is not only common sense and good politics, it is absolutely necessary.  We are talking about Burma here, where total isolation has historically always been an option for absolute military rulers. When you are looking at the real possibility of another 40 years of isolation and direct military rule, you will tread carefully.  Again taking a historical view, the past 40 years has been marked by constant underestimation of the determination and the brutality of the Burmese military.  We are still in danger of continuing this underestimation.

So Suu Kyi is in fact treading carefully, and she is taking the criticism that goes with that stance.  I too would expect her to at least say something about the real suffering going on, but I am not in her situation, and have not thought through the consequences of even acknowledging these bad things going on.  Perhaps her political calculation was that if she even mentions it, there will be more pressure for her to do something about it.  She can't do anything about it right now, for a variety of reasons, touched on in the article.

So welcome to the world of politics, Suu Kyi.  Standing courageously against an unbelievably bizarre and absolutely brutal regime was easy compared to this.  We will only know where her heart is when she is in a more secure position and this dangerous period of transition has been safely navigated.  Rohingya and Kachin people will have to continue in their horrible situations, relying on the goodwill and hard work of a variety of NGOs and human rights groups worldwide, as before, without a savior.  There is no one to save them just yet.

If and when Burmese reform is more secure, we will see where Suu Kyi really stands.  I have a suspicion that all her own years of suffering (not to be compared to the suffering of the targeted people, as she has often and always said) have not been forgotten or disregarded, and she will help all Burmese peoples when she can.  Yes, that is another case of idealism.  But in the real world of pragmatic leadership, it is still the best hope for a Burmese nation, including all the minorities.

These have just been some personal thoughts on the situation.  Some people and relief groups have been working and sacrificing for as long as Suu Kyii and their disappointment, even outrage, is very understandable.  What appears here to be my defence of Suu Kyi is just my attempt to understand why she is taking the tactic of "no comment" at this time.  I hope I have made it clear that I believe she feels she cannot afford to jeopardize the recent advances by speaking out against the army right now.  This is the same point made in the article.


[...] A Brave New Burma? By Nic Dunlop The Diplomat [...]

March 3, 2013 at 06:53

USAID with the carrot and strings approach can just go home

This was used to train donkey's in Sicily 900 years ago



Uncle Sammy
March 3, 2013 at 06:50


She wanted to be the martyr under the ( $12 MillionUSD ) house arrest to garner support and sympathy of the west.  Never did the NLD call for alliances with the ethnics while lobbying hard in the USA with Soros Open Institute Money.

Suu Kyi and her minions are the best at wool over the eyes of the US lap dogs people of the NLD in the USA that lived well in nice homes while the ethnics had nothing

The people of the NLD and the Institute for Asian Democracy in Washington DC
allowed the sanctions to take the largest toll on the minorities and ethnics
They should all ve ashamed as they are the ones that gained the most in the past

and will in the future once Suu Kyi gets her way

Kim's Uncle
March 2, 2013 at 05:53

It is a very positive trend in world affairs that the Burmese have rejected the embrace of china!

There is no benefit for Burma to be an isolated, pariah country along the same line as North Korea. North Korea isolation from the world only reflect the sad fate that it had embraced PRC for over 60 years.

I think Burmese are aware they do not want to become an isolated, pathetic country by following the path of China.

Oh we’ll, at least China can still embrace Zimbabwe and Iran!

Mr Devout Christian
March 2, 2013 at 05:14

Suu Kyi -true colours are now showing…The Muslim Rohaniya population is being persecuted for decades and she remains silent and the very junta she once claimed was oppressive-Shame on her and the Burenes Junta. I have lost respect. to abett crimes against humanity-alos look at the Mulsim countrieswith all their petrol $$$-why cant they help these poor people.

John Chan
March 2, 2013 at 03:18


How Burma runs its internal affairs is Burmese business, you cannot blame Burmese fault on China because China respects Burma’s independence.

Burma has the freedom not to do business with China and to do business with the USA, UK, Japan, …; they are the experts in interfering other nation’s internal affairs in the name of free market economy (mind you, free market economy does not mean benefiting the 99%, it is a fact even in their own nations) if Burma does not care about its independence. The first thing the USA will do is to get IMF impose their laws on Burma.


John Chan
March 2, 2013 at 03:04


The only way French knows to win business is bribery; blown envelops, greasing palms, decadent entertainment are the French forte. When the French cannot win businesses they used brutal forces to destroy the places so that nobody can make a living in the business; Mali and Libya are the typical examples when the French was losing business to the Chinese, they bombed and killed to destroy the peace and prosperity in Mali and Libya.


John Chan
March 2, 2013 at 02:47


USA is the godfather of Nazism and Japanese Fascist Militarism, this is the view of rest of the world. USA and Japan are police states that have laws to detain people indefinitely without charge and torture them in the oversea black centers.

USA Sadistic regime and Jap Fascist Militarism lackey are the appropriate label.

Kim's Uncle
March 1, 2013 at 11:20

@ jiang c,

Nobody is censoring you! If you want to call US nazi then go ahead, no one believes you but you can do that if you so desire! On the other hand a wise person can see a similarity between china and nazi germany! Both have one party dictatorship, both limit free expression, both have military expansion, both have clear racist policies, both have prison camps to lock dissidents, etc. yep Sino nazi regime is an appropriate label!

March 1, 2013 at 03:48

I agree.

There are a lot of corrupt "main spirited (sic)" Burmese (and half-Chinese) ex-generals and thei cronies from the despotic junta-regime that were bribed heavily by the Chinese (Khin Nyunt, Than Shwe, Tay Za, Tin Aung Myint Oo etc) and agrred to these "Chinese deals" to enrich themselves and to stay in power at the cost of destroying the livelihood of the poor rural population, not to mention the environment of the country.

March 1, 2013 at 03:42

@ John Chan


You are good at trying to cover up the chinese corruption in Burma. The greedy Chinese have been found guilty of bribing and funding corrupt Burmese elites. The deals that China is making with Burma are not for the good of the 99% but only good for the 1%. Calling such corrupt deals fair is a sign of a morally bankrupt person and country.


The only profit that China is giving to Burma is the profits they receive from exploiting the 99% of those poor Burmese. Why are you insulting Kim's Uncle, he is merely speaking the truth that China is emulating the nazi past. You are not engaging in civilized debate when you call people bigots, rednecks, mean spirited etc… so please stop trying to claim the moral high ground.


What the Burmese need is a French revolution. If they can emulate the French people in rising up against their hated oppressors, the Burmese military and corrupt Chinese, then they can finally be free from those evil Chinese.

James C
March 1, 2013 at 02:06

Aye, when some people pply the word "Nazi" to America or US, the comments get censored ltogether but when their own trolls use such words its ok.  So many instances of double standards "moderation".  They even allowed racist remarks and names to be published from one side only.  Truly, the Dplomat is becoming an extremist right wing US neocon mouthpiece.

John Chan
February 28, 2013 at 12:54


Burmese are not born yesterday, any deal must be acceptable to them and there is a profit in it for them before they will conclude the deal; Chinese only can conclude deal with Burmese by offering deals the Burmese cannot refused, there are fair and square business, calling Chinese greedy in deals the Burmese are willing partners is a reflection of bad faith, main spirited and bigotry on your part, as well as an insult of the intelligence of your country fellows.

BTW the British, the American and the Japanese robbed Burma under the gun point, that you can call them greedy.

John Chan
February 28, 2013 at 12:33

@The Editor,

Kim’s Uncle has violated Godwin's Rule of Internet, he is guilty of being a redneck in a civilized debate, he should be banished to basement of donjon.

Kim's Uncle
February 28, 2013 at 03:56

Burma should be very wary of the commie Chinese! Too bad Burma has a border with the neo Nazi regime that China . I think most Asian countries are becoming more aware of the Sino Nazi threat. Be prepared now in order to avert a future tragedy!

February 27, 2013 at 11:55

[...] Read more from Nic Dunlop in The Diplomat. [...]

February 27, 2013 at 10:51

Suu Kyi smells the scent of power in Naypyitaw (the scent of jasmine is so yesterday!) and she certainly is hell-bent on becoming the next President of Burma, come hell or high water, Chinese dams on the Irrawaddy or naval bases in Arakan State, Chinese gas/oil pipelines running through the Burmese heartland or Chinese "business immigrants" taking over Mandalay, Chinese copper mines
near Monywa or jade mines in Phakant, Rohingyas or Kachins, … well who cares about the 99% if you belong to the corrupt Burmese oligarchy, bribed by the omnipotent Chinese Yuan, that rules through corruption, coercion and "guanxi". She probably feels the need to get some "brownie points" from the ex-generals (her former captors) in order to share the "Burmese peacock throne" with them and that's why she said "I am very fond of the army"! Shouldn't she be more fond of the down-trodden farmers who lost their land and other displaced people in Burma? I should ask Bono from U2 (or Black-Eyed-Peas), because the reasons that she was an icon in the West (democracy, peace, human rights, environmental protection blah blah blah) is surely not quite the role she now plays in Burma.

In Myanmar or Burma or Miandian, you don’t change the actors, you change their names and their roles. Names are like smoke, roles are like mirrors. A lot of smoke and mirrors in Naypyitaw, the “abode of the rulers”. Burmese are very fond of the theatre of the marionettes!
Burma has always been ruled by an oligarchy since the days of the monarchy operating on the medieval principles of intrigues, bullying, nepotism, patronage and “appanage”. Connections (who's your daddy?) are the key to enter the web of power (Orwell already described all of this in his "Burmese days"). Suu Kyi (most Burmese don’t put their father’s name in front of your name, unless he is famous!) might be considered a “Burmese idol” or a “human rights icon” for many people in the West, but in Burma her fame and her power or rather authority comes from the fact that her father Aung San was a national(istic) hero worshiped by the majority of the populace. He died early so we would never know if Burma would be very different now if he wasn’t assassinated in 1947. What Burma needs is a French Revolution of sorts (you know the kind that says: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité) before Suu Kyi gives another (in my opinion rather boring) lecture about democracy and “rule of law” (so what’s the citizenship law in Burma?). Having an “upper-class” British accent doesn’t always make you an honest person!
Mind you, I am also very sceptical of these “ethnic armed groups” (a lot of them are just war-lords and smugglers “dealing” with the greedy Chinese) fighting for tribal turf along the murky borders of Burma while most of the poor rural inhabitants (not just the Rohingyas and the Kachin villagers) are suffering.


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