Myanmar: Shoring Up Its Regional Focus

2003

David I. Steinberg

The political stasis that seems to have continued in Myanmar is causing considerable concern among observers. According to all reports, national reconciliation discussions of any depth have yet to take place between the military junta, State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and the National League for Democracy’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Expectations for progress have not been met. The pessimism was reflected in the report of 27 December 2002 by the UN Special Rapporteur, Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who, while stating that some movement has taken place in the past two years, at the same time noted (in his concluding observations in the report) that: ‘It is high time to replace the high expectations of the ideal game scenario and the writing of constitutional models with a down-to-earth discussion of less prescriptive requirements, which will be able to stimulate a real process of change.’ He called for compromises, and stated: ‘Let us not refuse to acknowledge progress because the changes do not fulfil a maximalist [sic] scenario.’ He urged continuous engagement with the government, and rejected isolation.

This view seemed at odds with the current United States position, which has hardened in recent months, presumably under pressure from dissident overseas organizations and more conservative Republican Party members of the U.S. Congress. The bar for certifying that governments were in compliance with the anti-narcotics regimen had been appreciably lowered so that politically important Mexico could qualify. Myanmar might have met that requirement as well, and it seemed possible that the U.S. would also certify that Myanmar met the reduced standards. Myanmar had hopes of receiving such certification, since its opium production was down to one-third its previous high. Yet, in late 2002, the United States refused to do so, returning to the position it abandoned in February 2002 - that the U.S. wanted restoration of the results of the May 1990 election. This decision undercut those amongst Myanmar's military seeking more accommodation with industrialized countries.

In January 2003, Senior General and Chairman of the SPDC, Than Shwe, went to Beijing, and agreements were signed with the Chinese for some US$200 million in soft loans and US$5 million in grants. Improved relations with India and Bangladesh were also evident, and relations with Thailand were patched up with the visit of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to Yangon in early February 2003. Evidence is mounting that Myanmar is retracting its overtures to the world beyond the region, and concentrating instead on a policy of self and regional reliance. This is a step backward in the progress toward reintegrating that state into the world community, making substantive reforms less likely.

In early February, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Al Neuharth Free Spirit of the Year Award from Freedom Forum. The US$ one million award is the highest such award to a single individual. But internally in Myanmar, a sense of pessimism remains.

WATCHPOINT: Myanmar's economic relations with China underpin a security alliance giving China a greater intelligence gathering capacity in the region and direct access to the Indian Ocean – the latter also having economic benefits for China. ASEAN member states' reactions to such developments bear monitoring.

 

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