BREAKING NEWS: Monks return to the streets of Burma. (BBC)

No one party will be able to bring about lasting change for the better in Burma on its own.

By Gerald Giam

The shooting appears to have stopped, but the sufferings of the 47 million people of Burma are far from over. Effectively, little has changed from the time the popular uprising against the military government first began in August.

The strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, still wields absolute power in the country; opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still remains under house arrest; thousands of protest leaders remain under arrest; and ordinary civilians are still cowed down in their homes.

However some glimmers of hope are appearing.

United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari was allowed into the country in early October and was permitted to meet with both Gen Than Shwe and Ms Suu Kyi. Gen Than Shwe agreed to Prof Gambari’s suggestion to appoint a “Minister for Relations” with Ms Suu Kyi. The minister, Mr Aung Kyi, met Ms Suu Kyi on Oct 25. The junta has also agreed to admit Prof Gambari to Burma for a second time and has brought forward the meeting from mid-November to early-November.

Optimists may see these positive moves by the junta as genuine efforts to move the country forward along its faltering “Roadmap to Democracy”. However most pragmatists will acknowledge that it is all probably window dressing designed to placate the international community until all memory of the protests and shootings die down.

Whether Prof Gambari’s valiant efforts will succeed in bringing about a transition to democracy is anyone’s guess. However, one thing is clear: Neither Prof Gambari, any other party, country nor regional grouping will be able to bring about lasting change for the better in Burma on their own.

The only way to get the generals to stand down and relinquish power to a democratically elected government is for a co-ordinated, carrot-and-stick approach to be used on them by all the influential stakeholders. These stakeholders include Burma’s top trading partners, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations (UN), the US and European Union (EU); non-government organisations (NGOs) within and outside Burma, the media, and most importantly, the people of Burma themselves.

The Stakeholders and their Leverage

The UN is currently playing a leading role in negotiating with the junta. Since it appears that the generals trust the UN, and in particular Prof Gambari, more than even its ASEAN neighbours, the weight of the world’s support should be thrown behind the efforts of Prof Gambari.

Burma‘s top trading partners are China, Thailand, Singapore, India, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. Together, these seven countries are responsible for a whopping 75.1 per cent of Myanmar‘s total trade with the outside world This figure excludes Burma‘s massive black market trade with them. Since money talks, these countries together have a huge amount of leverage over the junta.

Unfortunately, most of them have so far not done much more than shrug their shoulders and claim there is nothing much they can do to effect change in the country. Each of them refuses to impose economic sanctions on Burma, because of business interests, but also because they know that withdrawing from the country will just leave a vacuum that will be gladly filled by their rivals.

It is key, therefore, for these top trading partners to closely coordinate their responses to the junta. To his great credit, UN envoy Gambari has been touring the region, meeting the leaders of each of these countries to get them behind the UN effort, and ostensibly to get them to sing the same tune to the generals.

However these trading partners’ response must go beyond just talk. These countries must stop their sales of weapons to the junta, whose only use for them is to attack its own civilians. They need to warn the junta that a lack of progress on the Roadmap to Democracy will have dire consequences on their trade relations. The option for targeted trade sanctions should not be taken off the table.

ASEAN has lent tremendous moral legitimacy to the junta since admitting it into its fold in 1997. The merits of that decision 10 years ago are still a subject of debate. However, now that Burma is already in the ASEAN family, it is time for ASEAN to take full advantage of goodwill generated by its “constructive engagement” to pressure the generals to change for the better.

Burma owes ASEAN a lot for the cover and heat the grouping has taken in the international arena on its behalf.

If it continues its recalcitrant attitude, ASEAN should threaten suspension or expulsion. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said recently that Burma will never be suspended from ASEAN. That negates much of negotiating power ASEAN has over the Burmese junta.

The US and EU have imposed economic sanctions on Burma for many years already. While these do not appear to have had the desired effect, if sanctions by these two economic giants had not been imposed, the junta might be even richer and more powerful now. However, piling on more sanctions is unlikely to move the generals very much — they have already found alternative sources of income. What would have an effect would be for the US and EU to offer to ease sanctions in return for tangible progress in democratization.

The media, which include the major news networks, bloggers and groups like the Democratic Voice of Burma, serves as the voice of the Burmese people. Their reports on what is happening in the country serve to galvanize the world to take notice of the tragedies that take place there. In the latest round of violence, the Internet played a vital role in disseminating information.

However, the international outrage over the violence will die down quickly if the media stops reporting human rights abuses committed by the military. As a result, pressure on the UN, ASEAN and individual governments to push for reform in Burma may dissipate. The media therefore has a moral responsibility to keep the world’s focus on Burma.

NGOs play a big part in investigating and highlighting the human rights abuses in the country. Without their reports, the media will have much less substance to tell the world about.

Finally and most importantly, the people of Burma must be empowered to fight this battle, which is mainly their own. Responsible opposition groups, like the National League for Democracy, should be given assistance and training to govern the country when the right time arises. It is no point ridding the country of the hated military government, only to have it break out in Iraqi-style civil war.

Therefore any efforts to dislodge the military go hand-in-hand with efforts to bring about reconciliation between the majority Burmans with minority tribes like the Karen, Chin and Kachin. Only then will it be safe to remove the iron fist of the military and let the people of Burma govern themselves.

The people of Burma have suffered for 45 years under a brutal and economically incompetent military regime. According to the UN, the country’s estimated gross domestic product is less than half that of Cambodia. One in three children under five are malnourished and less than half of children complete primary education. The recent protests have garnered unprecedented attention on Burma. The world must not miss this window of opportunity to help bring about meaningful improvements to the lives of millions of ordinary Burmese citizens.

The time for everyone to act is now.


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