Can Western Optimism on Burma Bear Fruit?

Published on August 26, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

 The Epoch Times – August 25, 2011

The past few weeks have given a new hope to Burma’s decades-old political imbroglio, as a number of positive developments have emerged. Some notable ones are: a couple of meetings between the Burmese labor minister Aung Kyi and Aung San Suu Kyi on July 25 and Aug. 12; President Thein Sein’s remarks on Aug. 17 reaching out to the Burmese in exiles to return home; and on Aug. 18 government’s open invitation to ethnic armed groups for peace talks.

To extend its conciliatory gesture to the international community, the Burmese government invited Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN human rights envoy, who began a five-day trip on Aug. 21.

Quintana has been denied a visa since his last visit to the country in February 2010. The special rapporteur apparently angered the then Burmese military regime when he suggested that human rights violations in Burma may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes under the terms of the statutes of the International Criminal Court.

Among others, lawmakers and government officials from the United States and the European Union have expressed their cautious optimism over the conciliatory approach from Naypyidaw (Burma’s capital).

The most welcome political development for the Western democracies was Aung San Suu Kyi’s safe political tour outside of Rangoon (Bago and Thanatpin towns) on Aug. 14, and the subsequent meeting between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi on Aug. 19.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the Western nations in welcoming the development, while reiterating his call for the release of political prisoners. Since Naypyidaw does not release an official figure (and even denies the existence of political prisoners), the precise number of political prisoners is unknown, although it is believed to be over 2,000.

In one of my upcoming academic journal articles tentatively scheduled for publication in early 2012, I discuss the problem of cooperating on human rights within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which Burma’s political prisoners are the major concern.

The issue of political prisoners is not only Burma’s internal problem, but has been a focal point of international criticism and a matter of disagreement among ASEAN member states.

Realists and Liberals

For Burma experts and observers, recent developments have been interesting to follow. However, differing interpretations can be drawn. Some analysts can argue that it is the government’s same strategic end-game policy to seek legitimacy and consolidate its power.

Realists may argue that it is the strategy of the government to maximize its gains both domestically and internationally. The liberals, however, may argue that cooperating with the Burmese government can lead toward a national reconciliation, yielding mutual benefits.

If one is to follow the realists approach, the strategy is either to strengthen the ethnic armed resistance groups to intensify their campaigns or to lobby the international community to support a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate possible crimes against humanity or war crimes committed by the Burmese military generals, some of whom now wear civilian clothes.

If the liberals were to prevail, the Burmese opposition and the international community should seize this opportunity as the new beginning for a national reconciliation process in this politically-shattered Southeast Asian nation.

Sincerity Needed

It is important that the Burmese government walk the walk, rather than talk the talk. If the government genuinely desires to see the Burmese in exile return to rebuild their abandoned homeland, the government must show its sincerity by releasing political prisoners.

Telling exiles to return while incarcerating others make the president’s statement unrealistic and untrustworthy. Moreover, it is something of a cajoling statement to invite the armed ethnic groups to come forward for peace talks when the Burmese military is pursuing them and endangering the lives of civilians.

Burma’s ethno-political problems had existed since before the country’s independence in 1948, which was further fragmented by the non-implementation of the 1947 Panglong agreement. The ultimate goal of ethnic minorities is a federal state with political autonomy.

As leaders of ethnic minority groups and Aung San Suu Kyi have suggested, reconvening of a 1947-type Panglong conference should be encouraged. Even if a consensus cannot be reached, such a convention can pave the way for a long-term solution.

Reconciliation between Aung San Suu Kyi (and her National League for Democracy) and the ruling government is crucial in achieving political stability. While many ethnic minorities have lingering doubts about the sincerity of the central Burman leadership, majority of them have faith in Suu Kyi, partly because of her father’s legacy and her intention to build a unified Burma.

Both domestic reconciliation and diplomatic relations can be pursued simultaneously. Suu Kyi’s role is crucial in establishing cordial relations with other nations, especially the Western democracies. The Western sanctions are unlikely to be lifted in its entirety as long as Suu Kyi and her party supports the policy.

By releasing political prisoners and reaching amicable solutions with the country’s ethnic minorities, the Burmese government can be integrated into the international community. Such a major reform will give Burma the opportunity to chair ASEAN in 2014 without opposition.

The fructification of optimism over Burma’s national reconciliation program largely depends on the sincerity and actions of the Burmese government. It is also dependent on the extent of cooperation given by all ethnic groups and the international community.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma/Myanmar and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). His works have been widely published in Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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