Indian Decade

Questions Aplenty on Burma

A panel discussion in New Delhi underscores the ongoing questions about the longevity of reforms in Burma.

It seems U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma has generated many more questions than answers.

Is Burma attempting to rehabilitate its image in the international community through genuine reforms? Or is it simply trying to reposition itself to jump-start its economy through greater contacts with the West? Has the United States forgotten its commitment to democracy? And will Burma become a pawn for the United States and China?

These were just some of the questions that were discussed in a talk this week in New Delhi attended by Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary who served as ambassador to Burma in the late 1990s, and Tint Swe, an exiled leader of the National League for Democracy, who has been living in India since 1990.

Saran says that Clinton’s visit to Burma has to be seen in the context of the recent East Asian summit in Bali, where the United States and a number of Asia-Pacific countries asserted themselves “against what they see as a much more aggressive posture by China on the South China Sea issue.”

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This has “opened a window of opportunity for the U.S. to change the perception that Washington is neglecting the Asia-Pacific region,” Saran said. However, he added that he doesn’t feel that Burma’s friendship with the West is going to lead to a “decline of China’s significant engagement with Burma”.

Tint Swe, though, was more forthright over the implications of Burma’s changing relations with the West.

“America’s involvement in Burma is very important. Burma has been in the lap of China for so many years,” he said. “Neighbors like India and ASEAN countries tried to balance China, but were largely unsuccessful. America’s involvement is a good way to maintain equilibrium in the region. It doesn’t mean getting rid of China.  It only helps in the regional balance.”

However, Tint Swe also questioned the likely longevity of political reforms in his country.

“I’m doubtful whether the change ushered in is irreversible because the change isn’t regime change,” he said. “The people are still the same – the party which controls parliament is controlling the machinery of the government from top to bottom. This dominance should be democratized, there should be some basic changes in the Constitution, the end of one party dominance and a 25 percent reservation in the party by the army.” 

Saran, in contrast, said he believed the “change is quite substantive,” and “the only question is whether the changes can be sustained, because there are powerful voices who are resisting the changes.”

Saran also noted the clear ties between the United States and Burma’s growing democracy movement.

“Clinton’s visit is taking place with the full endorsement of Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “It’s only after President Obama and Clinton were convinced that Western countries need to start the process of opening up to Burma [that] the visit has taken place. Despite skepticism, there is greater hope.”

Whatever the truth, as Clinton continues her visit to Burma, there’s still widespread hope that now really is the country’s time to join the international community as a freer, more democratic nation.