Myanmar: The Silence From Myanmar


Professor David I. Steinberg

There is a dearth of international reporting on the situation in Myanmar. The international educated public is uninformed as news reporting has virtually ceased. Some relatively few foreigners and the Burmese expatriate community concerned about the situation in that sad and neglected country get their information through specialized publications and the internet. But for the rest of the world, unless there is a disaster or some particularly heinous political event, a mantle of silence in the international media envelops that state. Yet, in a sense that very absence of what is called ‘news’ is the equivalent of the dog that didn’t bark in the detective story–the silence is significant.

The silence in fact masks stasis and suffering–both political and economic. A political stalemate continues that, however enervating, cannot be prolonged indefinitely. But for the moment, the military regime continues to harass the opposition National League for Democracy, attempting to emasculate its political infrastructure by arresting some, and forcing or encouraging extensive resignations in the belief that it will eventually fade away as the Burmese people lose faith in it or ignore it. The League, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, must continue its non-violent efforts to stay politically alive, and continue to attract international support, which is its lifeline and its protection for continued existence. As long as the same players in this long-running tragedy remain on the stage, little seems possible except the continued impoverishment of the diverse peoples of Myanmar.

The economic situation continues to decline; the state has made it evident that in the absence of significant foreign investment it intends to revert to the isolated economic chrysalis status from which it emerged some dozen years ago when it encouraged the private sector. The temporary spurt of international interest faded with the Asian financial crisis, U.S. sanctions, and the pariah status of the regime. It continues to build roads, bridges, and irrigation facilities, but the lives of the people do not seem to improve. Myanmar remains one of the poorest Asian countries.

Interested foreign governments seem in some disarray. Potential donors are divided in their proclivity to assist, even to engage in dialogue with the military government. New initiatives are discouraged, yet older policies have evidently failed to change that state. Neither proffering the proverbial carrots nor sticks seems to prompt change.

But plays do eventually reach a denouement, and actors in long runs eventually retire or reap their karmic rewards. Speculation continues as to the role of General Ne Win – long retired but the most important personality, if not the most efficacious, in 20th century Burma, and one who some say is one important ingredient of the glue that allows stasis to continue. At 89 or 90 years old, will his departure prompt an end to the stalemate evident today? No one knows, and until then Myanmar’s evolution is held hostage. In the short term, it is the military that has power. But in the longer term, evolution to some more liberal political system is more than likely. In the meantime, no news is not necessarily good news.

WATCHPOINT: Aung San Suu Kyi’s most recent foray out of Rangoon has put Myanmar back in the international spotlight.


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