Thursday, 5 April 2012

Still early days in Myanmar

Brave New World (The Star)
5 April 2012

Asean is calling for an end to sanctions on Myanmar and early reports seem to suggest that the European Union will be sympathetic to such a move. But this may be jumping the gun way too early.


IT is heartening indeed to read the news coming from Myanmar that the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi has won at least 40 of the 45 seats contested in the recent by-elections held in that country. Initial reports indicate that Suu Kyi herself won 90% of the popular vote, a testament to her long-lasting popularity despite being held under house arrest for the best part of the last two decades. Also interesting is the news that the NLD even won seats in the newly formed capital of Naypyitaw, a constituency which many thought would remain in favour of the military-controlled ruling party.
It would appear that across the board the people of Myanmar want a change to happen. But it is still early days, and as a Burmese friend of mine said, these are tiny steps. The ruling party still holds over 600 seats in their legislature, and for any real change to happen we need to wait and see what occurs in a full general election; not only what the election results will be like, but the behaviour of the ruling party in the run-up to the elections. Myanmar has long been the worst performing country in the Asean region when it comes to human rights and respect for democratic practices. The brutality of the regime has led to many deaths, some visible to the world, as with the killings during the Saffron Revolution, and many more hidden from sight as a result of executions and torture. One can’t help but worry what the regime’s reaction will be like in the face of such a clear and unequivocal challenge on its authority. Would there be sufficient space for the opposition to voice their opinions? Would a general election be free and fair? And, heaven forbid, would there be any more anti-democracy crackdowns? These are questions that linger. Yes, indeed it is still early days. Yet, we already have Asean calling for the end of sanctions on Myanmar. And early reports seem to suggest that the European Union would be sympathetic to such a move. It seems to me that this is jumping the gun way too early. As it is, Asean has never taken the atrocities that happen in Myanmar seriously; trade has never stopped. And even on a political level, there has not been the mildest public slap on the wrist of Myanmar’s regime by Asean members. The Asean way of non-interference appears to have gone as far as non-caring. Perhaps this has to change now with the signature and ratification of the Asean Charter which upholds human rights, democracy and the rule of law as official Asean aspirations. But looking at how quickly Asean is asking for a return to normalcy with regard to the world’s relationship with Myanmar, I doubt that it will seriously uphold these noble words. And as for the West, it is almost laughable at how eager it appears to be in wanting to jump back into bed with the Myanmar regime. As it is, the West was never completely out of bed with the regime as many Western companies, particularly those in oil and gas, continued to work in Myanmar even through the worst of times. What little the world has done to apply pressure on Myanmar surely must not stop suddenly simply based on the results of these by-elections. As Suu Kyi said, this small victory was a victory of the people. And how could it be anything else. The people of Myanmar have been fighting for freedom and democracy for the longest time, and I would submit that they have done so practically by themselves. It is far too early to just leave them to their fate now with the normalising of relations with Myanmar. Surely we must wait until at least there are clearer signs that the freedom so longed for has truly started to be felt by the brave people of this nation.

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