Myanmar transition gathers pace, but still has lengthy road to travel

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is on the road to Myanmar to witness a “critical moment” in the isolated Southeast Asian state’s slow but sure transition to a more open political system which may bring democracy, or could legitimize the long-ruling military regime. Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Myanmar and called for a “suspension” of the suffocating economic sanctions slapped on the military rulers. And now the European Union has suspended sanctions. Equally the United States has trimmed some sanctions too.

Indeed in the last six months there’s been a positive and perceptible shift by Myanmar’s nominally-civilian government. Rationales for the change have been easing debilitating economic stagnation caused by the embargos, tilting the country away from total dependence on China, and attempting to defuse growing political pressures from until-recently banned opposition.

Myanmar’s military regime, in power since the early 1960s, though politically backed by Beijing, remains in the steely grip of mainland Chinese military and commercial deals. Thus the military has tactically allowed a glimmer of hope into what only a few years ago looked hopeless. After all, political parties were banned, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and the resource-rich country was mismanaged by corrupt state socialism.

Making matters worse, the United States and the Europeans enforced punishing economic sanctions which hurt the Rangoon regime, but in turn made the country infinitely more dependent on neighboring China. Earlier this month, free and essentially fair elections were allowed for about 10 percent of parliamentary seats. Predictably the National League for Democracy, the standard bearer of the harassed opposition movement, won the seats and Suu Kyi gained a place in parliament. This is by no means a change on government but in attitude and aspirations for 52 million Burmese. There’s a whiff of reform throughout the land.

Amazingly, Suu Kyi will soon travel abroad for the first time in 24 years and visit Norway (to officially receive her 1990 Nobel) as well as Britain.

Ban Ki-moon stressed, “Now is the time for the international community to stand together at Myanmar’s side… yet we also recognize this fresh start is still fragile.” Reinforcing the fresh start should be suspending but not formally ending the economic sanctions.