Something is happening in Burma, and the world doesn’t know what to make of it.
Once so easy to condemn, Burma’s government—a quasi-democratic, quasi-civilian administration led by a former general, Thein Sein—now presents a dilemma. No one wants to snuff out genuine reform, if that is indeed what’s beginning to occur in Burma, by stonewalling a government that may finally be attempting change. At the same time, the international community is understandably wary of a regime whose atrocious record hardly entitles it to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Foreign governments and organisations have therefore been dispatching representatives to Burma with unprecedented frequency over the last few months to find out whether the country’s nascent reform process is indeed the start of something positive, and not a smokescreen for the extension of the old status quo. UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana (who was barred from entering Burma only last year), EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, and US special representative Derek Mitchell are among those who have just visited Burma and left sounding cautiously optimistic—echoing the upbeat statements made in recent days by Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, representing ASEAN, is due to arrive in October.
A debate now rages about whether, and to what extent, to engage with Naypyidaw. There are serious policy choices to be made. ASEAN must weigh whether to allow Burma to assume the ASEAN chair, as scheduled, in 2014. The EU and the United States, though hardly preparing to drop sanctions in the immediate future, can now at least contemplate a softening of their stance for the first time in years. And UN members responsible for drafting an upcoming resolution on Burma must decide whether to go further than previous resolutions in calling unequivocally for a Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations against the country’s ethnic minorities.
Despite all these pressing concerns, properly monitoring Burma’s progress, or lack of it, can only be achieved by measuring it over time. Moving slowly and deliberately will draw fire from critics on either side of the argument who either implacably distrust the Burmese regime or who argue that the time to open up Burma has clearly arrived. Nonetheless, ASEAN, the EU, and the United States have for now held out the prospect of rewards for real reform while withholding those rewards until measureable progress has been made. The question is which indicators to focus on, how much to expect, and which issues to de-prioritise in the short-to-medium term.
Derek Tonkin, the chairman of Network Myanmar, argues that the international community shouldn’t be too assertive for fear of forcing the Burmese government back into its shell. ‘You can’t set conditions,’ he says. ‘There’s too much positive news coming out of Myanmar. As long as the West doesn’t lecture too much and keeps its conditions general, then we can look at things and see what the Burmese themselves come up with.’
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Asia researcher, suggests that while ‘there is real movement afoot politically, or at least signs of it,’ meaningful change is so far confined to the political centre. ‘Even if these signs are qualitative, why aren’t they translating into improvements in the ethnic minority areas?’ he asks. For this reason Zawacki argues that pressure should be applied on several fronts, one of which should be the UN Commission of Inquiry.
A joint Australia-US communiqué issued last week made no mention of a Commission of Inquiry but spelled out other issues the two countries will be focusing on, namely: ‘the release of all political prisoners, cessation of violence against ethnic minorities, and the establishment of a process of dialogue with ethnic groups and opposition leaders.’ They also cited ‘the need for greater transparency in Burma’s engagement with North Korea.’ Following are some, but not all, of the benchmarks that might be used to plot Naypyidaw’s trajectory over the coming months:
1. Political prisoners
Monitoring the number of political prisoners the government releases is one of the more straightforward ways to measure its progress. There are questions over how many political prisoners are actually being held: Amnesty International cites ‘over 2,100,’ for example, while the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners counts 1,198. But reconciling these lists can be left for another time; for now, the release of the hundreds of prisoners we know about would be a concrete step.
A proposal for an amnesty on political prisoners has already been raised in the Burmese parliament, and the government may make a move before any new resolution is brought before the UN General Assembly in an attempt to earn some political breathing space. ‘If they release 400 to 500 there’ll still be people who’ll say that’s only a start,’ says Tonkin. ‘But it would make a big impression.’ From Zawacki’s perspective, ‘a wholesale release of political prisoners would be a welcome step … but should not come at the expense of other efforts.’
2. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy
The treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi is also easy for foreign governments to track, as are any instances of new arrests of NLD activists. The Burmese government appears to have learned that any threat to the safety or liberty of Suu Kyi becomes a lightning rod for international condemnation, and the breakthrough meeting between her and Thein Sein in August perhaps earned the government its best press in many years, courtesy of Suu Kyi herself. ‘I do believe that the president would like to bring about positive changes,’ she said after the encounter. With Indonesia’s Natalegawa planning to consult the NLD leader about Burma’s ASEAN chairmanship, her opinion now matters more to the regime than ever before. New measures against Suu Kyi and the NLD would therefore send the clearest message imaginable that Burma’s government has not changed.
3. Ceasefire and dialogue
The government signed ceasefire agreements with two ethnic minority armies in early September, but fighting against other groups, including the Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army, is continuing. It will be hard for foreign governments to credit Naypyidaw with real progress so long as the war between the Tatmadaw, or the Burmese Army, and the ethnic minority armies actively continues. But as well as calling a lasting ceasefire, the government needs to begin addressing minority concerns on such issues as the construction of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, a project that Naypyidaw appears intent on ploughing ahead with despite its destabilising effects.
So questions for the international community to ask over the coming year will be: has the shooting stopped; has a meaningful peace process been initiated; and do the talks involve all relevant parties (including the NLD and the ethnic armies currently fighting the Tatmadaw)? No such process exists today, and its initiation would be a very strong signal that the Thein Sein government is serious about changing his country.
4. Cooperation with a UN Commission of Inquiry
Human rights groups have been arguing for a UN Commission of Inquiry for several years, but previous UN resolutions on Burma have stopped short of mandating the Secretary General to establish a commission. The Burmese government set up its own human rights commission in early September, but this is unlikely to impress the UN.
‘There’s no credible reason why this Commission of Inquiry can’t be established while other attempts to engage the government proceed at the same time,’ argues Zawacki. ‘It’s not punitive, it’s a truth-seeking measure. The violations continue to take place. It’s not just the appropriate way to go, but also an obligation of the international community.’
However, while the establishment of a UN commission would certainly provide an effective test of the Burmese government’s willingness to reform and to address past wrongs, Tonkin believes that the UN resolution will once again avoid calling for the commission to be set up. ‘It would be a good test if it went forward, but maybe now isn’t the time to test them,’ he says. ‘It would be a great pity if the Commission of Inquiry was included in the General Assembly resolution and the Burmese reacted badly. They’d regard the committee as a kind of sanction.’ Amnesty International has picked up ‘discouraging’ signs about the EU’s willingness to press for the commission, Zawacki says, meaning that cooperation with an external inquiry may not be one of the tests that Naypyidaw must pass over the coming year.
5. Transparency on North Korea
Defectors have revealed enough information about Burma’s interest in acquiring a nuclear capability with North Korean assistance for the international community to have justifiable concerns. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already sought permission from the Burmese regime to investigate. Naypyidaw should now accede to that request, or at least divulge more information about its nuclear effort and about the conventional weapons programmes it has undertaken with Pyongyang’s help. Failure to act will diminish the chances of the US lifting its sanctions, and lead all foreign observers—most importantly ASEAN—to ask what the regime has to hide. If Thein Sein is serious about ending his own country’s pariah status, then he has to bring a transparent end to Burma’s incriminating link with Asia’s other pariah.
There are many other areas in which the Burmese government might be expected to make progress in the future: media freedoms, the easing of restrictions on NGOs, and the implementation of electoral reform, through which the country’s next election might be made more open than the rigged process that brought Thein Sein to power.
But maybe Burma needs to start with the basics. Even if Thein Sein is truly inclined toward reform, his regime is presumably packed with hard-liners who will try to obstruct necessary change. So the pace of change doesn’t need to be rapid; it just needs to be discernible and measurable. By monitoring the right indicators over the next couple of years, the world should start to understand whether the changes that Thein Sein has in mind are as real as we all hope, or as bogus as we all fear.