Myanmar: The Rumour Mills Grind On


Professor David I. Steinberg

The swirling rumours on which Yangon relies for news are often contradictory, since information is regarded as power and is judiciously guarded. There are some who say that the discreet dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the SPDC that started in October 2000 has broken down. Others, more numerous these days, say that progress is imminent. The rumours that Chairman and Senior General Than Shwe personally met with her recently are prevalent. Some sources say that we may expect progress in a few months, others definitely by the end of this year. No one is prepared to confirm any of these prognostications, but the outlook seems more optimistic than at any time in the past decade. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's representative, Ambassador Razali Ismail, will make a postponed trip to Yangon in mid-March. The UN human rights representative, Ambassador Paulo Pinheiro, was in Yangon in mid-February. Both have been treated with respect in Yangon.

But while these desultory discussions occur, events in Washington may outpace the haggling in Yangon. The Congress and the State Department are undertaking reviews of Myanmar policy, and there has been a movement in the Congress to ban imports from Myanmar. Especially disturbing to some is the increase in textile and clothing imports from Myanmar that have reached some US$400 million last year. The events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath have prevented serious congressional consideration of this issue to date, and the Enron disaster has further diverted the attention of many in the Congress. But sooner or later the issue of Myanmar will once again be raised by those devoted to the cause, and there seems little doubt that the skittish congressional representatives, many of whom are up for election later this year, will not want to be seen to be voting for a pariah regime. Sanctions legislation might well pass unless events in Myanmar intervene; thus there is an increasing sense of urgency.

The informal visit to Washington in November 2001 of an important military figure from Myanmar was an opportunity for a few selected members of the academic community and the congressional staff to explain in the most candid of terms the concerns of the Congress and the US, and the need for the government to take specific actions if there were to be better relations. These include a timetable for some sort of political settlement, an impartial adjudicative body to settle investment and business disputes since the courts are fundamentally flawed, and transparent and uniform regulations concerning the administrative recognition, registration, and operation of international non-governmental organisations.

On February 11, 2002, the US Department of State released its semi-annual review of conditions in Myanmar and US policy. Although the State Department denies any shift in policy, a subtle change in emphasis may be apparent - from a previous demand simply to honour the elections of 1990 to one more incremental, and thus more realistic. ‘Our [US] goal in applying these sanctions is to encourage a transition to democratic rule and greater respect for human rights. Should there be significant progress toward these goals, the US would look seriously at measures to support a process of constructive change.’

At this juncture, it seems that all actors, foreign and domestic, the military and the opposition, have somewhat adjusted their positions. But no one is holding their breath.

WATCHPOINT: In spite of the tedious pace of negotiations, evidence of changing positions is the most hopeful sign in recent memory.


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