Myanmar: Political Stalemate


Frank Milne

Developments in Myanmar so far this year offer no encouragement to expect an early evolution of the political stalemate. In recent months the leadership has come under continuing international pressure and sanctions from a variety of sources. It remains under the threat of ILO sanctions unless the regime acts to end the practice of forced labour by the end of November. The UN Special Rapporteur has criticised the widespread arbitrary detentions and reported that the torture of political detainees and ethnic minorities is widespread and systematic. Nearly 2000 parliamentarians from 85 countries at the International Parliamentary Union meeting in Jakarta signed a petition calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The United States and the EU, which strongly condemned the de facto house arrest of senior figures in the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as Aung San Suu Kyi herself after her second abortive attempt to travel out of Rangoon in mid September, have maintained their firm stance and measures against the regime.

Despite these condemnations and the sanctions imposed by Western countries, the regime shows no signs of easing its efforts to eliminate the NLD as a political alternative, and seems prepared to pay the price of substantial international isolation and an impoverished economy in order to stay in power, relying on the support of a few like-minded countries like China. There may be internal strains in the leadership, but self-preservation still seems a strong cohesive factor.

Even some members of ASEAN, which admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, are concerned about the on-going oppression of the opposition in Myanmar, and its capacity to harm the reputation and interests of the Association, not least in the recovery of trade and investment in the region after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The Association is however divided on the possibility of mediating between the regime and the opposition, with the conservatives continuing to oppose any interference in a member's internal affairs. For the time being, Myanmar remains a thorn in EU-ASEAN relations, and may yet derail the meeting planned for Laos in December. Myanmar was also absent from the ASEM summit in Seoul.

Thailand in particular is frustrated by the failure of the Myanmar regime to cooperate in suppressing the growing flow of methamphetamines and heroin across the Thai border. There have been reports that Burmese troops in border areas have to rely on a cut of the drug revenue to maintain themselves. While legitimate trade declines and foreign investment is drying up, drug derived funds assume increasing importance in what remains of the Myanmar economy.

WATCHPOINT: ASEAN’s ‘constructive engagement’ with Myanmar shows no sign of achieving early change.


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