Signs of Hope?

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The monsoon season is ending, and Burma's military regime is gearing up for combat on two fronts. One is the dry-season skirmishing against ethnic insurgents along the border with Thailand. No less important is the annual charm campaign at the United Nations, where this year's debate on Burma's human rights record is just under way. Temperatures--and voices--began rising inside the U.N. Human Rights Commission last week with the release of a report by the special human rights rapporteur. It accused Burma--also known as Myanmar--of practicing forced labor, summary executions, abuses of ethnic minorities and repression of civil and political rights. At the very worst, we are faced with a country which is at war with its own people, says the report. At the very best, it is a country which is holding its people ... hostage.
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The pressure may be getting through. For the first time since the 1995 release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house detention, the junta is responding to international condemnation with more than the usual empty rhetoric. Earlier this year, the regime surprised its critics by suddenly granting permission to the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect Burma's prisons and report on the condition of security detainees, the state's euphemism for the political prisoners it claims not to hold. That concession, along with moves to enter into talks on establishing an independent human rights commission and to entertain lawsuits filed by the opposition, has given the junta a toehold from which to respond to critics, and perhaps to begin experimenting with political and economic reforms. Last week the generals, with a nod, no doubt, to the U.N., made a more conciliatory gesture: they freed Rachel Goldwyn, a young British activist who had been arrested in September and sentenced to seven years in jail for staging an anti-government protest in downtown Rangoon. What we are seeing is not so much a thaw as the slow movement of a glacier that may finally be gaining momentum, says the former director of a U.S. humanitarian aid organization in Burma.

Despite such conciliatory signs, the two sides of Burma's political debate are still far from a breakthrough. Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won an 80% majority in 1990 elections that the regime refused to recognize, has called for the release of political prisoners and freedom for political parties to operate openly before she will enter into a dialogue with the ruling State Peace and Development Council. And she is not likely to bend to the junta's condition that the opposition abolish a committee comprised of elected MPs, which the junta denounces as a parallel government. Until the two sides find some common ground, donor nations aren't likely to authorize any major funding; the U.S., meanwhile, won't allow its companies to make new investments in Burma. In Asia, Rangoon's more forgiving neighbors continue to promote a constructive engagement policy, offering incentives to coax the regime to lighten up and reduce its growing dependency on China for trade, infrastructure funding and arms.

A potential breakthrough came late last month when U.N. special envoy Alvaro De Soto visited Burma to try to break the political stalemate. Though the mission apparently failed to bring the two sides closer on the big issues, it set off a chain of follow-up discussions that could lead to progress in forging a dialogue--a prerequisite for the release of major funding. In the meantime, says Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch Asia, If Burma were to make economic reforms and respond to various political resolutions, some doors might open to at least low-level aid and poverty reduction funds.

The visit offers the clearest hopes for some sort of compromise. The U.N. special envoy met separately with both General Khin Nyunt, the junta's Secretary One, and Suu Kyi. The talks were shrouded in secrecy, and rumors abound that the meeting with Suu Kyi was tense. Still, there is hope that the discussions will lead to something concrete. Suu Kyi apparently seemed prepared to make some concessions. De Soto reportedly asked if she would object to proposed World Bank technical assistance to train and develop the country's civil service: she has insisted on approval over such grants to ensure that they would not indirectly strengthen the junta. This time she neither rejected the proposal outright nor imposed strict conditions on its disbursal, asking only that the World Bank's dealings with the government be transparent and that the opposition be kept informed. The government portrays Aung San Suu Kyi as an iron lady, but she is not, says U Tin Oo, deputy chairman of the NLD. She can make compromises, with no winners or losers, for the sake of democratization.

Still, there are ample signs that the government is not ready to repent, even after 10 years of international ostracism. It is still holding more than 40 elected parliamentarians from Suu Kyi's NLD in jails and military guesthouses, following a crackdown on the party late last year. And more than 1,000 of the party's rank-and-file members languish in jail. A World Bank official who accompanied De Soto to Rangoon filed a scathing assessment after the visit. The still-confidential document concludes that there is little commitment to economic reform within the junta's high command. The Ministers for Finance and Planning and the governor of the Central Bank understand the need for reform, but cannot pierce the glass wall above them to reach the higher authorities, says a summary of the report. In any case, it adds, the capacity to undertake reform does not currently exist.

As the regime dithers, the economy continues to suffer. The generals who are running things routinely work round the clock to keep the system afloat. So frequent are midnight cabinet meetings that ministers and bureaucrats openly joke that they are permanently enrolled in night school. New foreign investment in Burma has plunged 51% over the past year, due largely to the Asian financial crisis, and plans to generate foreign exchange by exporting more gas are well behind schedule. Nonetheless, the military government continues to spend six times as much on defense as health. Inflation, meanwhile, is running at 40%: the price of rice is 60% up from last year.

The major victims of economic disarray are, of course, the country's poor. Though Burma is rich in natural resources, years of mismanagement have created miserable conditions. More than half the population has no access to clean water. Ignorance and poverty have contributed to an aids epidemic that has infected an estimated 500,000 people. Nearly one-third of children in what was once one of Asia's most literate countries now receive no formal education. With a per capita income of only $400 a year, Burma's citizens have the lowest purchasing power in the region. As a result of international sanctions, Burmese receive only $1 in overseas assistance for every $82 that aid agencies give their Laotian neighbors.

International non-governmental organizations are increasingly skeptical about the wisdom of withholding humanitarian aid for political reasons. Many NGOs are searching for a way to deliver such aid to Burma's poor without inadvertently strengthening the junta in the process. If we just stand by and allow the poor to become poorer, then we are systematically destroying the fabric that will eventually be needed for a democratic society, says an American health care worker in Rangoon. NGO staff members say that in the past six months they have begun to enjoy more options. There is to some extent already a middle way that requires talking to more than the junta, says Maureen Aung-Thwin, Burma project director for the Soros Foundations network. Potential donors don't have to have a tête-à-tête with Suu Kyi every time they want to give some humanitarian assistance, but such groups increasingly manage to talk to her about their plans.

Progress elsewhere has been subtle but unmistakable. Red Cross head of delegation Léon de Riedmatten says the regime's willingness over the past six months to grant his delegation access to 19,000 inmates and to interview more than 700 security detainees (with repeat visits to three of the prisons in which they are held) is a significant breakthrough. He hopes that the visits will help promote an improvement in prison conditions. That might, in turn, prompt the opposition to view the government more sympathetically and lead to dialogue.

At some point, ASEAN could flex its muscles. The organization's members probably have the capacity to prod Rangoon out of its isolation and into the international mainstream. Western governments have not been able to exert the sort of influence that Burma's neighbors could, says a Western diplomat in the capital. The recent attack by armed dissidents on the Burmese embassy in Bangkok offers a glimpse of how Burma's authoritarian government could find itself increasingly isolated in an expanding sea of democracy. Thai officials defused the crisis by trading the hostages for Bangkok's deputy foreign minister, Sukhumband Paribatra. He helicoptered with the gunmen to the Thai-Burma border and let them go free, depriving Rangoon of the international sympathy it had expected as a terrorist target. The junta retaliated by closing down Burma's 2,100-km border with Thailand and ordering Thai fishing vessels out of its waters.

Relations with the region's other democracies are not much better. Even politically conservative Singapore, one of Burma's biggest investors, has grown impatient with the regime's inability to break the political stalemate and get on with economic reforms. And with the fall of Suharto and the rise of democracy in Indonesia, Burma has lost another powerful ASEAN patron. In time, the junta may discover that it is easier to cooperate with its own democrats than fight the new ones rising across Asia.