Analyses of Burma’s politics after US delegation’s visit
America Dips Toe in Burmese Waters
5 Nov 2009
The US sends a high-level delegation to Burma in advance of President Barack Obama’s ASEAN summit next week, but little progress is expected any time soon, Simon Roughneen comments for ISN Security Watch.
By Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch
A high-level US delegation visited Burma on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, meeting with Prime Minister General Thein Sein and with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Significantly, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell did not meet Burma’s ruling strongman Sen Gen Than Shwe, who really calls the shots.
The meetings are part of the new US engagement policy with the junta, softening the isolationist stance taken by the Bush and Clinton administrations, but retaining the targeted sanctions on the ruling generals and business cronies first implemented in 1997.
However, his trip was described as “exploratory,” and dissidents outside Burma remain skeptical, with reason. In the days before the meeting the junta rounded up journalists in Rangoon and arrested some aid workers involved in Cyclone Nargis relief.
The US is considering easing sanctions, but it not clear what steps the junta is willing to take. No benchmarks have been set, though the US has asked for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the release of all political prisoners (there are over 2,000) and international monitoring of the 2010 elections.
Even if the elections are free, the framework provided by the 2008 constitution ensures continued military rule. Whether the US will push for a constitutional review is unclear, though Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the last elections held in Burma, wants the document reviewed.
Skeptics say that the junta has played along with ‘engagement’ efforts in the past – notably with US Senator Bill Richardson in 1994, and with various UN envoys – including a public snub to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this year, who was denied meetings with either Suu Kyi or Shwe. Moreover, as far back as when Richardson visited in 1994, Suu Kyi said that she was willing to negotiate with the junta. So 15 years on, it seems the wheel has come full circle, but still is spinning in the sand thrown down by the junta.
Than Shwe perhaps wants to reduce dependence on China for international diplomatic support, though Beijing has started construction of a major new pipeline across Burma, which will reduce dependence on maritime oil and gas imports. The dependence cuts both ways and China needs this pipeline. It also wants to retain its favored investor status with the junta, amid competition from India, Thailand and others.
The US seems keen to get more involved in Southeast Asia. President Barack Obama will meet ASEAN leaders – Burmese PM Thein Sein included – at the first ever US-ASEAN summit in Singapore next week.
Campbell’s visit lays the groundwork for summit discussions on Burma, which the Singapore hosts anticipate will take place at the summit. The most poignant concession would be to release Aung San Suu Kyi – though she is already barred from running in the 2010 elections.
Nothing less should warrant a review of the US sanctions, remembering that a previous UN envoy helped negotiate a release for Suu Kyi, only for the junta to return her to incarceration later.
Perhaps even more important would be public pressure from Obama on the junta to review the flawed constitution.
The Burmese junta has a long history of playing outside powers against each other and stringing along those who ‘engage’ with it. The US policy has not been explained well, giving the impression that it is going soft on human rights in Burma and Southeast Asia, and allowing some Asian countries to justify their history of cozy relations with the junta.
‘Engagement’ also threatens to give false legitimacy to the 2010 elections, which seem pre-loaded in favor of junta candidates and parties stuffed with ‘retired’ military.
Simon Roughneen is an ISN Security Watch senior correspondent, currently in Southeast Asia. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
Q+A: Why is the United States engaging with Myanmar?
Thursday, November 5, 2009
BANGKOK (Reuters) – It would be very hard for elections next year in army-ruled Myanmar to be credible without detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s involvement, a top U.S. official said on Thursday.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Scot Marciel made the comment after a two-day visit to Myanmar, the first in 14 years by a top U.S. delegation and part of Washington’s new policy of rapprochement with the reclusive junta.
WHY IS WASHINGTON ENGAGING WITH MYANMAR?
The Obama administration has recognized sanctions have failed and dialogue is needed to spur democratic reforms. It believes there is a better chance of progress if it engages and encourages the junta instead of disparaging the regime and ignoring it.
Washington is also concerned about reports of possible nuclear ties between North Korea and Myanmar, although it accepts there is so far scant evidence to prove this.
IS THERE A GEOPOLITICAL AGENDA?
Analysts and diplomats see another big factor behind the change in Washington’s stance: China. It is no secret the United States is concerned about China’s influence and wants to counter that by strengthening its presence and diplomacy in the region.
China may not be Myanmar’s greatest friend but it is its economic lifeline, pumping billions of dollars into the country and serving as a reliable political ally. Washington might not be be so comfortable with that.
China has begun building a crude oil port in Myanmar, part of a pipeline project aimed at cutting out the long detour oil cargoes take through the congested Malcca Strait. The nearly 1,000-km long pipeline is expected to provide Myanmar with at least $29 billion over the 30 years, according to rights groups.
“It’s is a big concern and geopolitically, it’s difficult to counter the effect of China,” said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar analyst at Australia’s Macquarie University.
“However, Burma sees China’s economic domination as a problem and it might want to show Beijing is not its only friend in town.”
WILL WASHINGTON LIFT SANCTIONS?
Not yet. While accepting sanctions have failed, the United States insists trade, banking and travel embargoes will remain in place, despite the softening of its stance toward Myanmar.
Marciel said sanctions could be reviewed, and the issue put before lawmakers, only if the generals showed significant progress toward reforms, which could be a long way off.
WHAT IS THE UNITED STATES ASKING OF THE JUNTA?
Its main objective is to encourage the generals to be more inclusive and to make sufficient concessions to allow all players to take part in the political process, which includes ethnic groups and opposition parties.
Washington has repeatedly asked for the estimated 2,000 political prisoners to be freed and allowed to take part in the polls, and wants Suu Kyi to be released, or at least allowed to meet with her party.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
Washington says it is taking a pragmatic, open-minded approach and has described this week’s visit by the fact-finding mission as “exploratory dialogue.”
Both sides have agreed to appoint a special envoy to continue the two-way dialogue, but it is perhaps too soon for higher-level meetings. This week’s snub by junta supremo, Senior General Than Shwe, was indicative of that.
Marciel said it was unlikely a meeting would take place between Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein and either U.S. President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the inaugural Association of South-East Asian Nations/United States summit in Singapore later this month.
(Editing by Jason Szep)
Myanmar’s Protracted Conflicts
By Nehginpao Kipgen
Just over a month after the announcement of the Barack Obama administration’s nine-month long policy review on Myanmar (Burma), the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and his deputy Scott Marciel paid a two-day visit to the military-ruled country from Nov. 3 to 4.
Campbell and Marciel met with senior military junta officials and members of the opposition, including detained Aung San Suu Kyi as well as representatives of ethnic minority groups.
The administration announced on Sept. 23 that it will pursue a direct and high-level engagement with Myanmar, while retaining sanctions. Though the visit was a short one, it was a test of the engagement-sanction policy.
There are critics who argue that the U.S. high-level attention validates the brutality of the junta, which has waged war against its own people and imprisoned more than 2,200 political prisoners. Proponents of engagement, however, argue that the policy is a way forward to democratization for the country that has been under military rule since 1962.
The good news is that Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, welcomes engagement for the fact that it is designed to be inclusive of the State Peace and Development Council, the National League for Democracy, and the ethnic minorities.
The U.S. government and other international players need to understand the historical nature of conflicts in this ethnically diverse nation where there are “135 races” ― according to government statistics ― which are primarily based on dialectical variations.
Before the British colonization in 1886, the territories of ethnic minorities (frontier areas) were not part of Myanmar proper. For example, the Shans were ruled by their own sawbwas (princes), and the Chins and Kachins were ruled by their own chiefs.
The 1947 Panglong Agreement served as the basis for the formation of the “Union of Myanmar,” and the country’s independence from the British in 1948.
Many have often failed to understand the complexity of the conflicts in this Southeast Asian nation. Until recently, many thought the conflicts were entirely between the Myanmarese military junta and the opposition on the question of democracy.
The conflicts are largely the consequences of mistrust and misunderstanding between the majority ethnic Burmarn-led central government and other ethnic minorities because of the failure to implement the Panglong Agreement. One significant agreement was granting “full autonomy” to the frontier areas, which has not materialized as of yet.
The failure to implement this historic agreement has increased mistrust and misunderstanding between the successive ethnic Burmarn-led military governments and other ethnic nationalities. Autonomy has been the core demand of minorities for over 50 years since 1947, and continues to remain the fundamental issue.
Successful conflict resolution depends on the facilitation of open dialogue on the basis of equality between all the interested parties. Such open dialogue will yield results if the rights of all ethnic groups are respected, irrespective of political and religious affiliations. Equality of rights is one fundamental democratic principle that is missing in Myanmarese society today.
Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are neither secessionists nor separatists, but are striving for autonomy in their respective territories within the Union of Myanmar. The minorities believe that self-determination would give them an opportunity to preserve their culture, language, and tradition.
There needs to be an environment where everyone receives equal treatment in the eyes of the law, regardless of the size of population. Under the military dictatorship, ethnic minorities are alienated and less privileged. This does not, however, advocate that ethnic Burmarns do not suffer under the military regime.
In the run-up to the proposed 2010 general election, the junta has stepped up military campaigns against ethnic minorities. The dismantling of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an ethnic Kokang armed group, in late September was an example.
With its sizeable army of over 400,000, and without foreign enemies, the junta has the power to cripple minorities militarily, but not necessarily the spirit of their core demand, which is autonomy.
To bring a long lasting solution to the decades-old conflicts, it needs the sincerity, honesty and participation of all ethnic groups. Different ethnic groups should be brought into confidence, and their legitimate demands should be looked into. The country needs reformation in various sectors ― both private and public. Political problems need to be resolved by political means.
Because of the protracted nature of the conflicts, there will be no quick fix or magical solution to the conflicts. It will require in-depth analysis, a systematic approach, and comprehensive remedial measures, including mediation and negotiation.
Because of its economic, political and military power, and the wide reception by the Myanmarese military junta and the opposition alike, the United States has the best leverage to help restore democracy in Myanmar. Any solution should somehow address the concerns of ethnic minorities, including a fundamental question on autonomy.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Myanmar (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Myanmar and Asia for many leading international newspapers in Asia, Africa, and the United States of America.
Burma in Crisis
By Andrea Sobolewski
Published: Thursday, November 5, 2009
Updated: Thursday, November 5, 2009
While most public attention has been focused upon the gruesome civil war currently taking place in Sudan, we must not forget the several other countries struggling with human rights violations. The country of Burma (currently known as Myanmar) is a Buddhist nation located in Southeast Asia to the west of Thailand. Its diverse ethnic population has resulted in an extensive history of ethnic conflicts. In the past twenty years, Burma has been fighting a bloody battle between the current military regime and the civilian population.
Up until 1988, Burma had been under the control of a military-dominated regime led by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) for 26 years. Like other military governments, there was no freedom of speech or elections, and protests were settled through force. During the 1980s, the economy severely deteriorated, and on Aug. 8, 1988, hundreds of thousands of protestors marched nationwide to demand the BSPP’s replacement by an elected civilian government. However, soldiers tried to settle the protests by firing into crowds and killing thousands.
That September, the army finally responded to the calls for democracy and announced a coup by the State Peace and Development Council. The government’s next move was to open fire with machine guns on demonstrators, killing at least 5,000 people and arresting thousands more. Amnesty International estimates that approximately 1,500 people are still living in harsh prisons as a result of these incidences.
While the State Peace and Development Council claimed that it would hold peaceful elections, the leader of the most popular opposition party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (National League for Democracy) was placed under house arrest and many other NLD officials were imprisoned. A free vote took place on Aug. 27, 1990, which resulted in the NLD winning over 80 percent of the parliamentary seats. The State Peace and Development Council responded to their harsh defeat by simply changing the rules of the election. Repression continued and several more NLD officials were arrested. During this time, the state media made reports almost daily of the “resignations” of hundreds of NLD members when, in reality, most of them were put under house arrest or detained.
Burma has an estimated military of 500,000 personnel. Given that the country only contains 50 million people, it is one of the largest militaries in Asia for a country with no external enemies. Campaigns across the world have forced a large amount of countries to withdraw from Burma, and the U. S. places a ban on most Burmese imports. Torture in Burma has “become an institution,” according to Amnesty International. There is an increasing list of human rights violations including rape, murder, torture, detention without reason and forced labor. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country to Thailand or elsewhere, but the majority remain internally displaced. Despite the fact that Burma has signed several human rights treaties in the past, basic fundamental freedoms are suppressed. The government monopolizes broadcast and other media, religious repression is common and labor unions are not allowed.
Currently, the State Peace and Development Council stated that it is developing a new constitution for democracy. The constitution draft protects against military dominance of any future government and has already been rejected by the Democratic opposition. No plan or schedule has not been provided that indicates democratic reforms, but the constitution principles that have been displayed so far seem to advocate for an authoritarian government with heavy military entrenchment. In 1995, after six years of house arrest during which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Since then, she has been in and out of house arrest, asking us to “use our liberty to help save theirs.”
There are many things that we can do to increase awareness and stop the violence in Burma. The U.S. Campaign for Burma is one of the foremost advocates for Burma human rights awareness. They are urging the public to join or start a local chapter and educate. The U.S. Campaign for Burma Web site has several suggestions specifically for students to complete on and off campus. In the mean time, keep your eyes and ears open to Burma events that may be taking place near you.
Written on behalf of Amnesty International.
Sobolewski is a member of the class of 2011.