Myanmar: Road Map


Trevor Wilson

Myanmar is facing a critical time, whether viewed from developments inside the country or from the perspective of the international community. Economic, social and political conditions for ordinary citizens remain bleak, with worsening trends in electricity availability, escalating prices for essential commodities, and continuing repression against any dissent. Now securely settled into the new capital, Myanmar's military leadership remains isolated from both ordinary people and from the international community. Its erratic governance continues, recently typified by attempts to "regularise" the status of non-government organisations (international and local) operating under its authority, thereby increasing uncertainty and operational difficulties for many NGO programs.

Exaggerated negative reporting often diverts attention from Myanmar's real crises. Although the regime continues to detain people temporarily for the minutest dissent (such as protests against rising prices, or power cuts), more political space probably exists inside the country now than at any time since May 2003. The Group of '88 Students continues to exploit this as much as it can, but the National League for Democracy is increasingly marginalised under the regime's unrelenting pressure on NLD members and its unjustifiable protected detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the regime's own political agenda is scarcely advancing: its National Convention process has again been postponed without plausible explanation; negotiations with the Karen National Union seem to have stopped; "dialogues" with other political groups are not progressing; and its apparent goal of extinguishing the NLD as a political force before any elections leaves the regime's reconciliation process devoid of credibility. International support for NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was restated in a May appeal by 59 former Heads of State for her immediate release, but will have little impact on Myanmar's leaders.

Morever, international responses to Myanmar's situation, always contradictory, lack focus and cohesion as never before. In London in May, a House of Lords Committee concluded that economic sanctions were not working, a view echoed for the first time recently by some Burmese expatriates. But Russia's May announcement that it would build Myanmar a small nuclear reactor, although not necessarily grounds for either proliferation risks or regional security worries, generated new doubts about regime goals. On the eve of ASEAN's annual meetings, its members have moderated their ineffective, but well-meant, calls for Myanmar's leaders to expedite national reconciliation. Even as China benefits economically from its close relations with Rangoon, hints of its unhappiness with the regime have emerged, yet real Chinese pressure seems unlikely.

Myanmar's increasingly grim socio-economic situation has been only partly alleviated by recent additional flows of international assistance, largely because the Myanmar Government is consistently slow to approve assistance proposals. Projects such as the Three Diseases Fund, supported by Australia and the EU, have been launched, Australia's Anti-People Trafficking program extended, and most existing programs continue. But new proposals from donors have not been approved, delaying assistance delivery and frustrating donor decision-making.

Meanwhile, the UN's important facilitating role on Myanmar is deadlocked, undermined by the defeat of the misguided January 2007 US/UK attempt to have the UN Security Council adopt a strong resolution on Myanmar. After a long delay, the new Secretary-General at the end of May appointed senior UN official Ibrahim Gambari as Special Envoy to succeed Razali Ismail, but a replacement Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Professor Pinheiro (who is no longer fully effective), has not yet been selected. One recent UN success was the regime's acceptance in March of the International Labour Organisation's complaints mechanism to receive reports of forced labour, a modest outcome. While there may never have been a more important time for the UN to assume leadership on Myanmar, with a clear strategic mandate, unfortunately this seems to be a long way off.

WATCHPOINT: Whether international pressure on Myanmar can achieve consensus and impact and whether the SPDC continues with its reconciliation


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