As Burma enters a new political phase, the international community should seize the opportunity to encourage greater openness and reform.
Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the opportunities offered by the generational and political transitions under way following the elections, and encourages Western governments to urgently adopt a new approach towards the country. Isolation and sanctions have failed to promote reform, and must end. Current policies have only served to harm the country’s population and impede progress on human rights, democratisation and development.
“A new constitution has come into force, which fundamentally reshapes the political landscape”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “Since liberalisation was not the intention behind the political restructuring, dramatic reforms in the short term are unlikely. Nevertheless, the way the country is being governed is changing, and this opens up important possibilities for incremental progress”.
For fifty years, Burma has been ruled by isolated and authoritarian military regimes. The November 2010 elections did not do much to open up political space. The military government orchestrated a landslide victory for its own Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the armed forces have a powerful legislative and executive role. But the underlying power dynamics are changing profoundly, and the situation is evolving in significant ways.
With General Than Shwe handing over power to a new generation of leaders, there is a window to influence the future direction of the country. Western powers need to engage robustly the new Burma government on a wide range of issues, and demonstrate that they are ready to adjust their policies. Greater support must also be extended to Burma’s beleaguered population. A renormalisation of aid relations is long overdue, and significant increases in assistance should be accompanied by lifting the restrictions on development aid, in order to fight poverty more effectively. This must include restrictions imposed on some United Nations agencies and international financial institutions.
“If the new government comes to the conclusion that megaphone diplomacy and sanctions from the West will continue regardless, there will be no incentive for it to try to improve relations”, warns Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “This will leave the people of Burma squeezed between a failing government and the failed policies of an ineffectual sanctions regime”.