The world as it is today, with a full-blown economic crisis, will not pay much attention to the quality of the democracy or the form of governance inside Burma, especially when recovery efforts continue in the Irrawaddy Delta. Under these circumstances, policies and measures adopted by the US, European Community, Asean and other major countries will inevitably benefit the junta since these players do not have unified positions and coordinated approaches. Each thinks its policy is better and result-oriented than others. Sad but true, that policy-makers on Burma have spent more time discussing their differences than trying to bridge perception gaps or consolidating tangible engagements that could immediately impact on the Burmese junta and changes on the ground.
Indeed, the situation today is very ideal to further augment the power of General Than Shwe and Tatmadaw. They just have to stay put, totally immune to international outcry, and never show signs of weakness. Than Shwe has demonstrated political prowess, knowing the so-called international community will succumb to his wishes and plans provided he is not the first one to crack. The generals in Naypyidaw have also provided policy-makers on Burma and donors in state or non-state organisations abroad with nuances on their political future and prospects, which raise hopes of betterment the next day. Altogether it has been over two decades of such expectations.
Still, they have never failed to push forward their views that the Burmese people need help in a big way, especially in healthcare and education. Outside help is also much needed. Of course, the junta does welcome foreign humanitarian assistance especially from those ready to accept its terms and conditions. One year after Nargis, the voices calling for more assistance are louder. Dominant international humanitarian organisations, including UN agencies and other nongovernmental organisations - both that were there before or after the cyclone - have already urged more assistance to help the Burmese people to rebuild their lives. They still need US$691 million (Bt24.5 billion) for the next three years.
Since May 19 last year, the presence of Asean and UN relief agencies on the ground have coordinated with the junta in distributing aid and helping the Burmese cyclone victims. The tripartite cooperation has repeatedly received the thumbs up. They reiterated the Burmese rural community leaders are now having unprecedented opportunities to learn and work together with foreign relief officials. Currently they have developed the capacity to organise themselves into informal civic groups to help their own people affected by the cyclone and rebuild their community. This progress could lay the foundation for increasing civic participation and the democratisation process in Burma.
The argument that helping Burma and saving lives is urgent and should not be politicised have been used by all parties concerned both inside and outside Burma. Everybody knows, despite such a mantra, everything in Burma has been politicised, more than people would like to admit. In the post-Nargis recovery process, the calls for additional assistance will be more pronounced. Foreign relief organisations, which have made it inside Burma, have been quite satisfied with the current state of affairs. They want to stay there beyond the one-year time-frame. When doubts were expressed about the possible abuse of distribution of aid, they labelled them as bias.
Now it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Some quarters in the international community have come round to accept that the Burmese generals are a bunch of tough guys and will not change any time soon. It is better for them to show flexibility and understanding of the Burmese quagmire and help the Burmese people even though the regime will benefit from such generosity. In such a backdrop, General Than Shwe just has to stick to his position for another 12 months or so. Then, he can tell the world proudly: I told you so.
During her Asian trip in February, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton threw a wrench in the works by saying the US was reviewing its Burmese policy as neither engagement nor sanction was working. Immediately, it caused ripples in the debate on Burmese policies. The EU has made it clear that it would continue with the sanctions unless there is genuine progress inside Burma. In the US, lawmakers and lobbyists have already called for an end to the long-list of US economic sanctions. Under the new US leadership, Washington would like to work closely with Asean to find a lasting solution to the Burmese political crisis. Nobody knows what would be the revised US policy on Burma. Asean does not support sanctions against Burma. Some Asean members such as Thailand and Singapore have suffered from the Tom Lantos-Jade Act. Thai gem traders and jewellers have complained to the Thai government of the damages caused to their billion-dollar business.
Under the chairmanship of Thailand, Asean supposes to have a more pragmatic approach on Burma with the Abhisit-led government. As a frontline state, Thailand wants to restore respect for the conduct of its regional foreign policies. That hope was prematurely dashed by the political chaos in Pattaya. At first, it was thought that Thailand, with a more broad-based approach, without the past vested interests on Burma personified by Thaksin, would garner Asean support and beyond. The Pattaya mayhem, followed by the Songkran riots, completely tarnished the chair's reputation and leadership on the Burmese issue.
Last week, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, British Ambassador to Burma Mark Canning was very candid, revealing that the largest aid
donors to Burma post-Nargis were the US and Europe which has imposed sanctions. For the Burmese generals, this formula is a win-win roadmap.