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US and others stunned by changes in Myanmar

Two seemingly unrelated topics dominated the East Asia Summit in Bali last week. The first was the question of whether United States President Barack Obama’s newly “prioritised” Asia
Pacific focus was designed to curb China’s growing clout in the region.

The Americans claimed it was not; everyone else, including the Chinese, believed it was.

Either way, as the respected Washington analyst Chris Nelson said, it helped allies feel they can “stand up to China’s bullying and hectoring, when necessary, since they aren’t being abandoned by the US”.

The second was the curious way Myanmar became a hot button item with the stunning news that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit there next month.

Could it be, delegates feverishly queried each other, that the startling reforms introduced by the elected government of President Thein Sein were actually for real?

The give-and-take on this matter began, almost overnight it seemed, to tip solidly in favour of the optimists.

Even the Americans, long trapped in an antedeluvian pro-sanctions policy which was misguided when introduced and which subsequently has become silly and self-defeating, swung around.

Consider the flurry of astonishing comments and articles from them about Myanmar that have issued forth over the past few days.

James Clad, former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Asia-Pacific, said: “It’s now time to accept that change in this backward country is real and, if the West will embrace it, irreversible.”

He and others highlighted how Myanmar’s new parliament, though dominated by former regime-aligned members, has vibrant debates that are given critical press coverage.

Indeed, Myanmar’s media has been transformed so profoundly that it makes many newspapers and magazines across the region pale in comparison.

As well, new laws give workers the right to form unions, a third release of political prisoners is imminent and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has said she will re-enter the political arena.

If the West does not react substantively to these revolutionary moves they will appear bonkers.

But then, as Clad noted when working for former President George W Bush, America’s Myanmar policy was “bordering on the irrational”.

And despite the positive effusions in Bali, it is not impossible that the bonkers brigade in the US Congress will continue to prevail.

Let us hope not. It would be far wiser to heed the advice of two other former US diplomats, Morton Abramowitz and Thomas Pickering, who urged the US to help accelerate reform in Myanmar.

They stressed that Suu Kyi, who spoke with Obama by phone on Thursday, confirmed there are clear signs of positive change and that it would be prudent to listen to her.

Even Amnesty International’s Myanmar man, Benjamin Zawacki, recently affirmed that there are positive political and economic reforms underway in Myanmar.

Said Zawacki: “Those who deny this are simply not paying attention or are allowing their personal, political or institutional agendas to get in the way.”

He is right. As Abramowitz and Pickering said: “Instead of sniping from the sidelines, Western leaders should publicly recognise what’s happening in Myanmar and respond.”

They recommend that America and other European dinosaurs join the international community and use the country’s real name Myanmar, rather than its colonial one of Burma.

This, of course, is a no-brainer. After all, the entirely sensible name change was made more than 20 years ago and will never be reversed.

It is quite nauseating the way self-righteous Western hypocrites reject Myanmar, but happily use other dictatorially-changed names like Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Yet truth to tell, there is one usage for Myanmar’s old name that will be missed. In World War 2, troops writing home to their sweethearts would scrawl BURMA on the back of the envelope.

It meant: Be Undressed and Ready My Angel. Let us hope the name stays in the lexicon, if only for that.

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