US engagement with the nation may have laid groundwork for improved diplomacy, but the generals are still firmly in control.
THE two-hour summit meeting of US President Barrack Obama and the leaders of the 10 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held on Sunday, at the end of the APEC meeting in Singapore, stimulated much idle speculation about possible future political developments in Myanmar. This was because the hyped meeting was the first encounter between a senior Burmese government official, Prime Minister Thein Sein, and a US president since Lyndon Johnson welcomed General Ne Win to the White House in 1966. Then, in the midst of the Cold War, neutralist Burma was hailed as a cheap but effective bulwark against Chinese communist expansion into Southeast Asia. When the Cold War ended, and the containment of communism ceased to be the centre of American foreign policy, Myanmar soon became a favoured whipping boy for the Clinton and Bush administrations, ultimately obscuring larger issues at stake in US-Asian relations.
President Obama is taking a different tack. Whether the administration in Washington really expects the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military government in Naypyidaw to heed its insistent strictures regarding the release from house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other opponents of the regime, or reopen negotiations on the political future of the country prior to elections slated for next year, is unclear. They would be naive if they expected much from sending two top state department officials for two days of talks in Yangon and Naypyidaw or to dangle economic rewards in front of the generals who have governed Myanmar for the past 20 years, accepting no foreign advice and precious little foreign economic assistance. Whatever else the Americans are currently doing, in statements to the effect that they are establishing no conditions on a dialogue with the SPDC they are positioning themselves to be able to improve relations with Myanmar after elections in 2010 create a new government with a civilian face. The European Union member states will doubtless probably soon be playing catch-up.
The ASEAN-US summit provided President Obama an opportunity to reiterate his call for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This call was made in his first speech on his initial Asian sojourn the day before. Having twice called for the end of her home detention, once in the hearing of Prime Minister Thein Sein, he fulfilled a political obligation to her supporters and his critics back in Washington. However, the American willingness to see the issuing of a summit final communique that made no mention of political prisoners but merely called for the 2010 elections to be fair and inclusive, demonstrated a degree of diplomatic flexibility that the former Bush administration was unable to display. The return of the Americans to the ASEAN meeting shows both a measure of respect for regional sensitivities and a realistic perception of what American power can and cannot achieve in Asia.
Back in Myanmar, the issuance of a letter from Suu Kyi to SPDC Chairman Senior General Than Shwe, written on November 11 to request a meeting to discuss cooperation in the future, with the background of the US flurry of interest, prompted even more speculation. Her presumption to approach the head of state as an equal, when all previous talks between her and senior government officials since 1988 have failed, suggests this effort will probably be ignored. Her unwillingness to address the conditions set down by the government for a meeting with the senior general in October 2007 – that she agree to renounce her policy of resisting all authority, her call for utter devastation and her previous requests that Western governments impose economic sanctions – will probably guarantee no response to her letter. The dead letter box will once more be opened.
The SPDC laid down its seven-step road map to the establishment of new political order in 2003. It has been following that plan slowly but steadily ever since, having achieved the ratification of a new constitution by a miraculous public referendum in May last year. The next step in the road map will be the holding of elections, followed by the convening of a legislature and the formation of a new government. Demands by the NLD and their supporters to reopen issues foreclosed by the ratification of the new constitution will continue to be ignored. The government is taking the final steps to prepare for the elections next year. The completion of the process of turning former insurgent armed foes into border security forces under the auspices of the national army is now under way. This is a crucial step to ensuring domestic peace and stability under the new order.
The issuance of a new election law, which will determine the conditions under which political parties can be organised and rules by which they will be allowed to campaign, is still awaited. Until that document is promulgated, most expected political life to be put on hold. Inside the country, people interested in politics are expectant of some modest change after the elections in 2010.
They do not expect a revolution, nor a sudden revision of the constitution to address those aspects of it to which democratic purists strongly object.
The Myanmar army has created for itself a constitutional order that will preserve peace and stability in such a way as it believes history has proved is essential. This may be a self-serving reading of history, but no less real for that.
The SPDC is not going to give up what it has planned for itself and its country for unknown and untried promises of cooperation with foes of 20 years’ standing, with whom previous attempts at dialogued proved to be fruitless.
Robert Taylor is a former research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and author of Burma: Political Economy under Military Rule.