Conflicting signals on reform in Burma (Myanmar)

Aung San Suu Kyi is cautiously optimistic about the future of Burma (Myanmar) as the government approved her party to run in upcoming by-elections.

AP Photo via APTN
In this video image Aung San Suu Kyi the general-secretary of Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy speaks to the Associated Press during an interview at her residence in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar) on Thursday.

Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she believes that her country will hold full democratic elections in her lifetime, a good sign for the country, which has long been notorious for its oppressive military rule.

Ms. Suu Kyi's remarks came on the heels of three high profile visits to Burma (Myanmar): Both Hillary Clinton and billionaire businessman George Soros, longtime funder of exiled opposition groups, made the trip last month, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in Burma earlier today. 

In yet another positive nod to reforms in Burma, the government approved Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy to run in April by-elections for the country's parliament, and a presidential adviser said that the she could one day lead the country where she spent 15 years under arrest.

Though Suu Kyi she said she was optimistic about Burma’s future, the Nobel Peace Laureate quickly cautioned the West to not get too excited, pointing out that the democratic reforms could still be blocked by Burma’s Army.

“I trust the president but I can't say I trust the government for the simple reason that I don't know everyone in the government,”  Suu Kyi told the BBC.

Today's soundbites come after a series of reforms by a nominally-civilian government that took office almost one year ago, replacing a military regime in control since 1962. Some 300 political prisoners have been freed, a controversial China-backed dam in the north has been shelved, and laws have been amended to allow greater media freedom, public protests, and the establishment of trade unions.

However Burma still holds hundreds of political prisoners. Estimates vary, but the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPP), run by former detainees and which tracks political prisoners in Burma, says that there are around 1,500 still in jail.

Secretary Hague said after meeting his counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin in Naypyidaw that "the foreign minister has reaffirmed commitments that have been made to release political prisoners,” but the Burmese foreign minister later reiterated to the BBC the old military junta line that Burma does not have any political prisoners.

Aung Myo Thein of the AAPP says that “reform is so-called reform,” citing a prisoner amnesty earlier this week, when only about 34 political detainees were freed – after already serving much of their jail time.

The US has said that full and unconditional release of political prisoners is a necessity before it will consider lifting economic sanctions on Burma.

Aside from political prisoners, conditions in Burma's ethnic minority regions are another litmus test of the government's reformist intentions.

Benedict Rogers, activist and author of a biography on Than Shwe, the reclusive former military dictator thought by some to retain behind-the-scenes influence in Burma, told the Monitor that the Burmese government should be encouraged to reform but added that “if the regime wants to convince us it is changing” there needs to be “an end to the attacks in the ethnic states, and a nationwide cease-fire must be announced.”

Far from Rangoon and Naypyidaw, such reform is hard to detect.

Zipporah Sein, head of the Karen National Union (KNU), says she fears that the approaching dry season will see a return to the bloody clashes between the Burmese Army and the ethnic Karen militia, which has strongholds near the Thailand-Burma border.

And as investors size up what they hope will be a reformed Burma, the KNU is taking its time on going ahead with a Thai-backed multibillion dollar port and highway development linking Burma's coast with Bangkok.

“We want the project to be done to international standards,” says Zipporah Sein, adding that they are still in discussion with Italian-Thai Development, the Thai company leading the project.
In Burma's northern Kachin state, near China, fighting has been running for seven or eight months now, with tens of thousands made homeless, according to Ah Noh, of the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand. In Kachin state, “we don't see any sign of change in the ground,” she says.

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