By Bhaskar Roy
Following her meeting with ex-general President Thein Sein in August, pro-democracy leader and icon, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said that she believed the President wanted “real positive change”. In that one month Ms. Suu Kyi met government officials three times. The president made the meeting with Ms. Suu Kyi congenial and warm with a personal touch. On the office wall was a photograph of Aung San, the leader of Myanmar’s (then Burma’s) independence and father of Aung San Suu Kyi.
United Nations (UN) Special Representative on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Qintana was allowed in for a five-day visit and got access to top leaders in Naypyidaw. He also met Suu Kyi. Most importantly, Ojea was allowed to visit the infamous Insein prison where political prisoners are held, and talked to them. Ojea, of course called for the release of around 2000 political prisoners, who he referred to as “prisoners of conscience”. Officials in Naypyidaw told Ojea that political prisoners will be released only when the government was assured that they will not disturb national stability. According to the official newspaper the New Light of Myanmar, Ojea told the Naypyidaw leaders that Myanmar was on the right track towards reforming into a democratic country.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent a combined total of 15 years under house arrest since she returned to her country in 1988, and received the Nobel Prize for Peace, has emerged as the main interlocutor and sounding board for the army-backed government. She was released from house arrest last November, just after the military controlled elections. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the elections and has been debarred since. NLD members continue to be arrested and jailed, but Suu Kyi is being treated in a special category.
Following her release from house arrest, Suu Kyi’s freedom has increased incrementally. That was to be expected. She was allowed to address seminars abroad through video-conferencing, starting from her talk to the Hong Kong University, the latest being on the Charlie Rose show in the US along with Rev. Desmond Tutu. Suu Kyi was careful not be controversial and remained within the edges of the red line.
When travelling out of Yangon, Suu Kyi asked her supporters to be peaceful, and the government in its turn, did not put any impediments. The apprehension that a 2003 like government crackdown could happen, was not even in sight.
Another significant development was a motion passed in the army-dominated parliament that “firmly hoped that the President would make an assessment and release an order of amnesty (for the political prisoners)”. Myanmar’s Chief Justice Tun Tun Oo, however, issued a dampener saying “There is no prisoner serving a term for his belief. Prisoners are all serving their terms for crimes committed”. The Chief Justice could have said that the cases could be reviewed if the President so ordered. But his outright rejection suggests that sharp differences exist within the system on the road forward. Yet, Justice Oo also said the country’s judges should stay away from politics and, under the present judicial system, they must handle cases with the constitution. This raises another issue – the constitution of 2008.
There have been some other symbolic moves towards democratization. Non-government newspapers are allowed to publish Suu Kyi’s photographs, and edited her speeches. The intent is to ensure that her talks remain outside the country as much as possible. Non-political and other sensitive reports like on the economy or history remain censored, but some anodyne reports are allowed.
Of course, the space allowed does not mean progress is not irreversible. But things are moving. Suu Kyi is being given almost the respect of an opposition or, in the British practice but much short of it yet, the role of “shadow Prime Minister”. A slew of foreign visitors have been allowed into the country and Suu Kyi was meeting with them.
Suu Kyi, herself, is changing her strategy. In a meeting with US President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy for Myanmar Derek Mitchell, she asked the US to consider giving humanitarian assistance in health and education sectors. Back in Washington, Senator Jim Webb, Chairman of the Committee on Asian Affairs issued an official statement that there were signs of new openness in Myanmar’s government, and that the US should be prepared to readjust its policy. Suu Kyi could be meeting Myanmar’s strong man Gen. Than Shwe, soon. This is a much anticipated meeting, and Suu Kyi’s new approach including trying to soften US sanctions is helping nurture trust. Very recently, in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA), Thein Sein’s advisor Ko Ko Hlaing said Suu Kyi’s international connections and international influence will be of great advantage to the welfare of the Myanmarese people. Choosing RFA to speak was a direct message to the US and the West.
The government is trying to reach out to the armed ethnic groups, but its offer of talks have been rejected by the ethnic coalition on the grounds the government wants only one-to-one meeting with each of the groups, and wants them to disarm. Suu Kyi is likely to be made a member of the government sponsored committee to talk to the ethnic rebels who also rejected a government proposal that their armed units could function as border guards. The ethnic groups see in these offers a divide and rule policy and resistant to national unity. These, of course, are initial stages and Suu Kyi, given her new profile could influence the government to take a national inclusive approach.
Gen. Than Shwe is still the power and the puppet master of matters of Myanmar. It was he who changed the character of the Myanmarese government with a definite foresight. Myanmar could have gone on for another two decades under this rigid military rule. The western sanctions did not hurt the military. They mainly deprived the common people. The country grows enough food grains, especially rice, to feed the population and export. It has huge natural gas resources as well as gems and timber. Its hydroelectric projects produce electricity, and much of the potential remain unexploited.
There is a broad line of thinking that Naypyidaw’s show towards democracy is merely cosmetic, geared towards its quest for the Chairmanship of the ASEAN in 2014. But Myanmar’s policies may have a very different aim.
Having sanctions lifted would be a bonanza. But Myanmar wants to get out of the iron grip of China to which it was consigned because of sanctions. Former intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt, whose mother was Chinese, almost sold out his country’s sovereignty to the Chinese. Chinese interests are all over Myanmar seen and unseen. Khin Nyunt has been sentenced to 44 years in jail for corruption. But “corruption” is an expression used for the public. Khin Nyunt was removed and jailed for his deep nexus with the Chinese. Than Shwe is not a China lover, but his choices are limited. He has been quietly diversifying Myanmar’s outreach to Russia, North Korea independent of China, India and, if he could, to the USA.
Khin Nyunt had tried to have the junta sign the road-cum-waterway agreement with China from Kunming to Myanmar’s Indian Ocean port of SITWE under which Myanmar authorities had no right to inspect Chinese goods going out and coming in. Naypyidaw has also resisted pressures from Beijing to allow construction of a road from China (Kunming) to Chittagong, Bangladesh, through its territory. It has resisted Chinese pressure to allow China’s naval ships to be placed in Myanmar’s waters to ostensibly protect China’s interests in the country. But it has succumbed to allow oil and gas pipeline from Myanmar’s coast to China.
Naypyidaw has many conflicts with China. It has come to know that Beijing has been funding and arming the Wa National State Army (WNSA) to harass Myanmarese troops to pressurize Naypyidaw. The Kokangs, another minority who are ethnically Chinese like the Wa, has been supported by China quite openly.
Myanmar’s strategic location jutting into the Indian Ocean is very important, as the importance of the Indian Ocean is rising. The country, if it could get out of sanctions, can play a significant role in trans-Asian economic and trade connections. But Beijing is trying to suffocate it and make it a vassal state. It may feel that the Chairmanship of the ASEAN will give it more strength to get out of China’s stronghold. Over the years, however, China has also nurtured interest in important and powerful sections in Myanmar especially in the military. A most recent example of this is the controversy over the construction of Myitsone dam on the Irrawady river in Kachin state. According to experts, it will be an environmental disaster and the Kachins are dead against it. China is funding and constructing this dam, and most of the electricity produced from this hydroelectric project will be transmitted to China.
A government hosted seminar in Naypyidaw on September 17 to discuss the impact of the dam ended in discord between the pro-dam and anti-dam groups. The anti-dam group was backed by President Thien Sein, while the pro-dam group was led by Vice President-I, ex-general Tin Aung Myint Oo. The final outcome will indicate the influence China exercises in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s isolationist policy and military dictatorship took the country out of the focus of international deliberations. In the coming decade, it is poised to emerge as a very important country in the Asia and Pacific region. It is now the responsibility to rescue Myanmar, and Naypyidaw is signaling.
Foot Note: The United States must stop short of imposing its own format of democracy. There are different structures of democracy with the base line of freedom of speech and expression, freedom to vote, freedom of assembly, and the state’s responsibility to look after its citizen. Let Naypyidaw draw out its own structure of democracy within the basic parameters.