Some More Winds of Change in Myanmar

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It may be a small step but may herald the beginning of a giant leap for Asia’s most reclusive state that is Myanmar. Reports on September 16 said the quasi- civilian government has lifted the ban on prominent web sites including some run by critics of the regime. The sites that will be accessible to the net surfers in Myanmar are Reuters, The Bangkok Post, Singapore Straits Times, the Burmese language services of the Voice of America, BBC, and the expatriates owned Democratic Voice of Burma, besides several regional newspapers and the YouTube.

The decision coincided with the ‘International Day of Democracy’, and the visit of a US special envoy to Yangon. Democracy Icon, Aung San Suu Kyi has welcomed the move saying that changes are on the horizon in Myanmar. She has been interacting with the regime partly to recover her own lost ground and partly to establish a channel of communication with the new upfront leadership, who appear keen on ‘a reasoned’ dialogue.

These winds of change don’t mean that the country will be having a free media or a free access to the internet. Local print and electronic media remains under government control. Censors have not said goodbye as yet and their approval is necessary for any printed material to see the light of the day. The restrictions perforce remove room for criticism of the government. Moreover, foreign journalists cannot report freely from the country. But the fact that the government deemed it necessary to relax its grip over the net, notwithstanding the slow connectivity, is a big improvement in the media policy.

In the days ahead the calls for lifting of sanctions on Myanmar will, therefore, grow louder. ASEAN and ethnic parties within the country have been opposed to sanctions seeing them as punitive measures. They don’t see any valid reason for keeping the sanctions in place now that Myanmar junta has allowed elections to take place in the country and ensured that the new government is formed by leaders in civilian dress. On their part, the ethnic groups aver that sanctions ‘are causing many difficulties in the important areas of trade, investment and modern technologies for the development of ethnic regions’.

‘We ethnic parties together request that the United States and European countries lift the sanctions,’ say the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the Chin National Party, the All Mon Region Democracy Party and the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party.

These five parties have sent their representatives to Myanmar Parliament. SNDP with a tally of 57 seats has emerged as the largest ethnic party in the election held in November last year. Aung San Suu Kyi did not enter the fray, though she was released from her long detention. Her poll boycott was a protest against the ban on her party

While the West saw the election as a sham exercise, Asean held a different view. It felt that poll was ‘transparent’. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, speaking for ASEAN, said as early as January that the policy on sanctions against Myanmar should be reviewed ‘as they (sanctions) have an impact on development in Myanmar’. The US under President Barack Obama opened a ‘dialogue’ with Myanmar’s military rulers in 2009 itself. It has made lifting of sanctions contingent upon progress on ‘democracy and other concerns’.

The other concerns include human rights. Also the continued detention of over 2000 political prisoners. So significant moves towards dismantling the sanctions are unlikely in the short to medium term.

Over the past month, what may be described as tentative signs of a thaw in the relations between the ‘civilian’ government and Aung San Suu Kyi are visible. She had had two rounds of talks with Aung Kyi, the labour minister, and both sides agreed to ‘cooperate on stability, tranquillity and development of country’. Aung Kyi was the liaison between Suu Kyi and the military junta before she was locked up, The Nobel laureate has also made her first overtly political trip outside Yangon since she was freed from house arrest in November.

Going by the public comments of Information Minister Kyaw Hsan (at a press conference at Naypyidaw, the new capital, on Friday, August 12), the army-backed regime is holding out an olive branch to Suu Kyi and other critics at home and abroad in a clear signal of its eagerness to be accepted as the representative government of the land. It no longer likes to be treated as a nominally civilian government nor does it want to get bogged down in verbal duels.

Said Minister Kyaw Hsan: “Both sides will work together for peace and stability and the development of the country”. He announced that UN special rapporteur on human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana would visit Myanmar soon. Tomas last visited Yangon in February 2010.

Suu Kyi contributed to the change in the Junta mindset in no small measure. A month (June) after she was bluntly told to keep off politics, she wrote an open letter to the government in July offering helping broker peace with rebels in the ethnic belt in Eastern Myanmar where the on-going conflict has resulted in ‘a dire humanitarian crisis’.

According to the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network, more than 30,000 people have been rendered homeless. Many of them have fled into forests near their villages in the Shan state.

The fighting, which broke a 22-year cease-fire, began in March. It intensified in July, when 4,000 troops backed by fighter jets moved to seize the northern Shan rebel group’s headquarters in Wan Hai. Kachin state which like the Shan state is in perpetual turmoil has seen displacement of 20,000 people since June.

(* This dispatch first appeared on Poreg.org, the web site of an independent think tank, Policy Research Group,POREG)