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REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Three trends that will keep Burma on the world's radar

After the violent crackdown last month and Rangoon's dismissal of the UN's call for dialogue, three broad trends have emerged that will ensure that the perpetual Burmese crisis never again falls off the world's radar screen.

Published on October 22, 2007



First, there is a stronger coalition of countries calling for additional and tougher sanctions, as well as increased humanitarian assistance and contact with the junta. The other is the acknowledgement of the pivotal role played by China and other neighbouring countries, including India and Thailand, in a peaceful transition in the months and years to come, as nobody is advocating an abrupt regime change in Burma. Finally, a strong coalition of human-rights and civil-society organisations around the world have raised awareness and educated the global community about the Burmese atrocities.

Ironically, these trends were brought about by the junta's brutal crackdown against Buddhist monks last month. The Rangoon junta has been able to get away scot-free with their less publicised oppressive acts against the Burmese people and opposition forces since 1988. Rangoon has been adept at playing realpolitik and trade-off games with major powers interested in its rich energy resources. The suffering of the Burmese has, for the first time in nearly two decades, unmistakably registered. So far, the international community's response has been swift and sustained.

Since the early 1990s, Western countries led by the US and the European Union have maintained various forms of sanctions against the Burmese regime, ranging from trade and investment, to financial visa matters. Last week, US President George W Bush announced additional sanctions targeting three dozen senior officials. Both the US and the EU are working together on banking sanctions that would freeze offshore accounts belonging to the junta leaders, their families and associates. An arms embargo is on the drawing board. These sanctions are smarter and more specific.

The regime's brutality, witnessed through countless video clips and photos, has bridged the perception gap that existed among key countries engaging Burma. Previously, only the US and the EU saw eye to eye on the need for sanctions. Japan and Australia preferred a middle-of-the-road approach with humanitarian aid and limited programmes. However, the latter two have hardened their positions following the crackdowns and continued arrests of dissidents.

For Japan, it was a wake-up call. The cold-blooded killing of Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai abruptly shifted the mood of Japanese policy-makers who had previously shown tolerance over the Burmese situation. The Japanese stance has been that a softer approach coupled with human-resource development programmes would gradually change Burma and make it more democratic. So far that has proven to be wishful thinking.

Under heavy public pressure, the new Japanese government under Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has downsized foreign assistance a little bit. Tokyo does not want to lose all the contracts that also directly benefit the Burmese. As the largest donor to Burma, any drastic reduction or halt from Japan would certainly hurt the Burmese, especially if the cuts pertained to various human-resource training areas.

To mitigate the repercussions on the Burmese people from increased sanctions, the EU has announced more humanitarian assistance that would benefit citizens there directly, notably those in non-economic matters. Burma urgently needs proper public services in education, healthcare and disease control - three priority areas that have been neglected for decades. The regime has ignored these fundamental imperatives, as most of the country's resources and finances were spent on military affairs and the relocation to the new capital of Naypyitaw.

As far as the region is concerned, the focus has been on the role that China could play in ending the regional crisis. Beijing has been very discreet in pressuring Burma. This represents a unique opportunity for China to lay down a foundation as a responsible international player. China was brought into action in the Darfur crisis by the threat of an Olympic boycott. In the case of Burma, China has shown a willingness to take up international concerns and debates at the UN Security Council (UNSC).

China realises that its close ties with Burma and passivity is hurting its "face", meaning prestige, and "international stature" before the Olympic Games. For selfish reasons, China must help Burma to find a way out in order to maintain stability. Beijing no longer has a business-as-usual attitude towards Rangoon. Both India and Thailand, which have extensive energy deals with Burma, have yet to break ranks with the regime. Likewise, after expressing revulsion regarding the atrocities in Burma, Asean must show it can move beyond rhetoric.

Finally, in the globalised village wired by the Internet, non-governmental organisations such as MoveOn.org, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and various concerned groups have kept the world informed about the situation in Burma. They have also gone a step further by mobilising them into action. MoveOn.org gathered over a million signatures for its petition on Burma over the Internet and that will be soon passed on the UNSC and Chinese President Hu Jintao. This kind of massive grassroots pressure across a borderless world exclusively on Burma is something new.

Taken together, these trends aim at keeping the Burmese crisis alive in the public debate at all levels. They show that in order to deprive the regime of legitimacy, the international community must not yield and must work as a team.

The opportunity has come and must not be lost to make sure that the regime will not come back and fight another day.

Kavi Chongkittavorn


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