Slow Down With Burma

ASEAN and the West have been quick to embrace the promise of change in Burma. It’s too early to get excited.

By Zaw Nay Aung for

Association of Southeast Asian Nation leaders recently selected Burma to chair the organization in 2014. But has Burma truly done enough to be awarded such an honor, considering its very recent past?

Even if ASEAN has prepared for the worst, the stakes are too high to give the regime what it wants considering the country’s horrendous human rights record and aversion to democracy.

But it’s not only ASEAN that is taking a risk by offering diplomatic incentives to the Burmese regime – the United States and, crucially, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), are taking a huge gamble in engaging with President Thein Sein.

The NLD decided to re-register and contest by-elections last Friday. Yet, although there’s no doubt that the party has the best of intentions, it’s not clear that the country is ready for this shift. After all, what exactly has the Burmese regime done? For example, instead of freeing all of those in jail for supposed political crimes, as the international community has called for, only a few leading activists have been freed. In addition, Thein Sein has rejected the term “prisoner of conscience” and repeated the clichéd mantra of “prisoners who violated the laws.”

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As a result of their decision, Suu Kyi and the NLD have given up the major trump card they had in any negotiations with the regime. If they had played their cards a little closer to the chest and held out for more concessions, they might have stood to gain more in the long run. Unless the remaining political prisoners are released by the end of the year or early next, the political situation in Burma is likely to be both chaotic and static, and the promises of reform will ring hollow.

Western governments eager to reap the economic and geostrategic benefits of a partnership with Burma would be better served by taking a slower, wait and see approach. With little set in stone and so much at stake for the people of Burma, Western governments mustn’t give credit for promises only. 

Zaw Nay Aung is director of Burma Independence Advocates in London.