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Burma, the outcast, on the long road to reform

There is a quickly developing sense that Burma, long an outcast in the international community, has begun a serious process of reform. It is as though the Burmese opposition, and the world behind it, are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, where a hostage comes to love the hostage taker following a small sign of kindness.

Burma’s human rights record over the past five decades has consistently been among the worst in the world. It is also one of the world’s biggest international drug suppliers.

To counter the damaging opprobrium this brings, the Burmese military-derived government has now released hundreds of political prisoners, signed a ceasefire with the country’s largest ethnic rebel group and has allowed the opposition National League for Democracy to re-form. The NLD has announced that it will challenge 23 of 48 vacant seats in by-elections to be held on April 1.

The economic and diplomatic benefits that will now flow to Burma for these limited acts of kindness are significant. The US government has lifted economic sanctions and agreed to exchange ambassadors while Australia has eased its own sanctions, the UK is opening diplomatic channels and Canada has welcomed the country’s political changes.

Within Burma, pressure on its overfull political prisons is reduced, even though hundreds more political prisoners remain. Meanwhile, the byelections are for seats vacated by politicians who have been promoted to cabinet following what were overwhelmingly regarded as rigged elections.

Civilian” members of parliament, mostly retired former officers, were shoe-horned into office in the farcical 2010 “elections”, with a further quarter of its members appointed by the head of the military. Importantly, there is no date for the next full “elections”.

Burma has few international friends. China and India compete for trade and diplomatic links, while Chinese influence has been steadily growing, being its main strategic partner since the 1990s. However, relations between Burma and China cooled last September when Burma backed away from a Chinese-sponsored $US3.6 billion dam project — the first of seven — that was to supply electricity to China.

Facing continuing economic disaster and a fallout with China, Burma’s leaders have accepted they need wider international engagement and have offered limited change to encourage it. The West has taken this limited change as a significant act of reform, which it is not. So what is motivating the West?

The West, in particular the US, is keen to accept Burma in order to pry it away from Chinese influence, to deny China access to Indian Ocean ports and intelligence facilities and to shift the regional strategic balance towards India. In this, the US and its friends are prepared to overlook the rigged parliament, military-dominated government and continuing human rights abuses.

Perhaps Burma’s limited changes should be welcomed, as at least a step in the right direction. But full acceptance may be premature as Burma remains a long way from releasing its metaphorical — and literal — hostages.

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