Azja-Pacyfik

Hillary Clinton in Burma (added on 2011-12-30)

Just a few months ago no one would foresee such a scenario in Burma. Everything seemed have to returned to normal after forged elections of November 7, 2010, boycotted by the oppositional National League for Democracy (an action for which it has been delegalized), after which the generals and colonels of junta clad themselves in civilian clothes. When the President-elect Thein Sein, who was person No. 4 in the previous junta called State Peace and Development Council, declared on March 30, 2011 that profound reforms and “democratization” shall be implemented, no one believed him. It seemed that this would be just another empty promise. The presidential amnesty of May 16 seemed to prove that this was just another lip-service, since 14 600 people was released from prison - but they were common criminals, and not political prisoners, a group estimated at 2000.

That the new changes are not just a façade has only been proven by a series of events starting from August. On the August 17 session of the Hluttaw (the parliament) president Thein Sein once again advocated “profound reforms” and even called for the return of the large Diaspora to the country (ironically enough, this call was answered only by former comedians based in the Thai city of Chiang Mai; others, who have not forgotten the bitter past, did not follow the suit). Two days later the president invited Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of delegalized NLD and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, to the capital Naypyidaw, and there, beneath the portrait of her father, the architect of Burmese independence general Aung San, they spoke for approximately an hour. The regime media reported on this event, which was unusual given the fact that previously Aung San Suu Kyi was banned from it. On September 30 the president, having referred to the ‘will of the people’, blocked a Chinese investment in a dam construction in the upper course of the Irrawaddy (Ayerawaddy) River. This project amounted to 3,4 bln USD - an unimaginably large sum in this poor country. Then it became clear that this time something more profound is in the cards. Could it finally be a real change in Burma, which remained under brutal dictatorship since general Ne Win stage a coup d’état in March 1962?

Internal processes were overlapped by an unprecedented international activity of the new administration. It was started by a visit paid by American senator John McCain on the turn of June and July, who was followed by the Foreign Ministers of Australia (and earlier Prime Minister Kevin Ruud) and Indonesia (Marty Natalegawa). The latter came to check, whether the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is worthy of taking over the steers of the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) - something the current administration of Naypyidaw has been contending for. The appraisal was positive, since on the November 19 ASEAN summit on Bali it was declared, that Union of Myanmar will be heading this organization in 2014, instead of Laos.

The other goal of Burmese foreign policy was a rapprochement with the USA. The government representative Derek Mitchell visited Mynamar several times, each time talking both with the government and Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result in the first days of December 2011 a historic visit was paid to this country by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was “historic”, because the last Secretary of State to visit Burma was John Foster Dulles in 1955!

What is this all about? Where could these changes lead to? These questions are asked by almost everybody. Of course, we are still forced to rely on speculations and assumptions, since the ways of the Naypyidaw government are still not clear, and its intentions and objectives remain unknown. We can only hope that Burmese declarations will come true, such as the statement by the leader of the lower chamber of the Hluttaw, Thura Shwe Mann (the former No. 3 of the junta), who said during a meeting with Hillary Clinton: “We are creating history. We shall continue our work, the reforms are irreversible”.

Some observers say that the former dictators, now playing the role of democrats, were simply afraid of sharing the fate of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, who were dethroned during the “Middle-Eastern Spring” earlier in 2011, and therefore they decided to loosen their own policies. This argument seems to be well grounded, but perhaps there is another explanation, namely that the Burmese authorities might have realized that the country’s ever-growing dependence upon China is too deep and constitutes a threat to Burma’s sovereignty. Hence the geopolitical game – with the Americans. Further events shall prove this thesis right or wrong.

One thing is sure, though: the fact that Burma-Myanmar entered a totally new stage in its history. Over 200 political prisoners have already been released, and it is said that more will follow. NLD was allowed to return to the political scene and Aung San Suu Kyi does not rule out the possibility of running in the new by-elections. This would mean a real change in the political system. Moreover, a national Committee for Human Rights, which is constituted mostly of wealthy pensioners who enjoy widespread social trust, has begun its activities. Armistices are starting to be signed with national minorities, some of whom (the Shans, the Karens, the Was and the Kachins) have waged war against the central government. The main problem, however, lies in the lack of public trust, which has not been won in spite of promising changes. This is a legacy left by the authoritarian regime that put the Burmese nation under a long hardship.

Therefore the preliminary conclusion is as follows: the situation in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, up till now a classical failed state and a pariah in the international community, became extremely interesting. Aung San Suu Kyi faces the most difficult political choices in her life. Only history can properly judge the intentions of the current authorities: whether they are determined by short-term goals (e.g. breaking out from international isolation) or by a true desire for reforms and changes. One way or the other, this process is being worth observing.

Redakcja: azjapacyfik@swps.edu.pl. Wykonanie strony: Stanisław Meyer, stan.meyer@uj.edu.pl.