This piece can also be found on Shambhala SunSpace
The news from Burma this week is encouraging. The doors of freedom continue to open. On January 12, the government of Myanmar and ethnic rebels of the Karen National Union signed a cease-fire and peace agreement that lays the groundwork for the end of a sixty-year insurgency and struggle for greater autonomy. The next day, as hundreds gathered outside prison gates, Burma released 651 inmates, many of them known as prisoners of conscience, including prominent monk U Gambira, “88-Generation” leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, former prime minister Khin Nyunt, and other prominent figures.
Later that same day President Obama acknowledged this release as “a substantial step forward for democratic reform.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an exchange of ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in 24 years. Clinton said, “This is a lengthy process, and it will, of course, depend on continuing progress and reform. But an American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding.”
The government of recently-elected president Thein Sein has made significant efforts towards the opening of society. Instead of former junta’s reflexive and rhetorical hostility towards so-called political prisoners, Thein Sein said yesterday that those released can “play a constructive role in the political process.”
The prospect is at once encouraging and fragile. All the political prisoners have not been released. The total number is itself uncertain. The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) is a respected organization headquartered on the Thai-Burma border, which carefully documents the status of Burmese prisoners. According to AAPP may still be as many as 1500 prisoners of conscience in Burma. There are still hot conflicts in Kachin and Shan states. Reflecting on these conflicts in an interview last week, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “Unless there is ethnic harmony it will be very difficult for us to build up a strong democracy.” And, needless to say, there is hardly a coherent rule of law in the country.
Recognizing that such changes are in process and remain incomplete, the U.S. government and the EU seem to be looking toward April’s by-elections in Myanmar, elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi is herself planning to stand for parliament, before mitigating or rescinding longstanding economic sanctions.
Among circles of Burma’s friends there has been an ongoing debate about the efficacy of western sanctions. At the risk of over-simplification, one side argues that sanctions by the U.S. and European nations fall most heavily on the shoulders of the Burmese people themselves; that sanctions have obstructed the process of liberalization; and that they have thrown Burma into the arms of Chinese economic and military interests. The other side, taking direction from Aung San Suu Kyi, sees sanctions as an into Burma’s long-term military rulers, and as a withholding of approval/privilege to the regime until ethnic conflict is resolved, political prisoners are released, and internationally-recognized legal principles are enacted.
I tend to fall in the second camp, taking leadership from Aung San Suu Kyi as the point person for legitimate politics in Burma/Myanmar. This debate will probably never end, irrespective of change in Burma. But one could make the case that the sanctions have, in a sense, “worked.” The economic pressures compelled the regime to throw its lot in with China, which has its own strategic and global interests at heart, not the interests of Burma’s peoples. After last year’s elections in Myanmar, it is clear that the new government craves international recognition, and does not wish to see itself subsumed by China’s economic power. So they are looking to the end of western sanction, which calls for liberalization and openness on various fronts.
But still we can hope. At the same time, opening Burma — with its wealth of natural resources, agriculture, and people — to the international market economy will bring its own challenges and contradictions. The sweet things people cherish about Burma’s culture will very likely fade in the transition. One door opens, and another may close.
— Hozan Alan Senauke
Postscript: I am leaving for India next Tuesday, then on to Burma in early February. This will be a timely opportunity again to see the process of change first hand, and to speak with those who are actually enacting some of these changes. I hope to have much more to tell you on my return.