Monday, January 9, 2012

Hope for ‘more change, more change’


Monday, 09 January 2012 02:42 Benedict Rogers

British Foreign Secretary William Hague is the latest in a stream of foreign politicians to visit Burma. His visit follows those of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, German Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Wener Hoyer, and his own Cabinet colleague, British Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell.

Hague is also the first British Foreign Secretary to visit the country since 1955.  Clearly, something has changed, and is changing in Burma.

The suggestion made to me by Burma’s military intelligence when they deported me from the country just ten months ago, that there was “no change, no change,” is simply no longer true. The question is not whether Burma is changing, but rather how significant, deep-seated, substantial, far-reaching and long-lasting the changes will be? Are the changes ‘window dressing’ to secure for the regime international legitimacy, or do they represent a genuine process of democratisation? And what do such visits by foreign politicians mean for Burma’s democratisation?

The first big test of the first two sets of questions will come on 1 April, when the parliamentary by-elections are held, contested by the National League for Democracy (NLD). How free and fair will they truly be? The second big test will be what NLD elected Members of Parliament will be able to do, once elected. And the third, and most fundamental, test will be whether the regime will release all political prisoners, stop attacking and raping ethnic civilians, and announce a nationwide ceasefire.

If the regime meets these three steps, confidence in its sincerity will be significantly strengthened, and we can begin to say that real change is occurring. Until then, any step that is taken should be welcomed, but regarded as a somewhat token gesture designed to create the impression of change, buy the goodwill of the international community and stall any more substantial reforms.

The answer to the second question is linked to the first. Visits by foreign politicians, especially of the calibre of Hillary Clinton and William Hague, provide an opportunity to deliver, repeat and reiterate a message to the regime – that if it wants to be taken seriously, it will, as Hague said, be judged “by its actions.”

For too long the debate about Burma has been polarised between those advocating "engagement" and those promoting sanctions. Visits by Hague and Clinton have proven that the two are not mutually exclusive. The visits have also been a confidence-building exercise with the regime – the Generals need to be assured that if they change, the international community will respond positively. For too long, sanctions as a tool have been mishandled – imposed reactively and punitively, and not used as leverage as effectively as they could have been.

Recent months have shown a change in strategy, for the better, made possible by President Thein Sein’s reforms.

Clinton and Hague have shown that it is possible to talk to the regime while sanctions are still in place, and in doing so delivered a message to the regime: your "pariah" status is not inevitable or forever. As Hague said, “my message is, if you want those sanctions, those restrictive measures, lifted, then it's important to complete this process of reform.” That means the release of all political prisoners, an end to attacks on ethnic civilians and a nationwide ceasefire.

Hague has maintained a close interest in Burma for several years. When he was the opposition foreign affairs spokesman, he pushed the then Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Burma, calling for the issue of Burma to be placed before the UN Security Council. He met several Burmese activists, including Charm Tong in 2005, and spoke at the launch of Zoya Phan’s book "Little Daughter." He displayed those years of interest during his visit to Burma, when he spoke in detail about the plight of the ethnic nationalities. Neither the regime nor Aung San Suu Kyi could have dismissed him as a politician from a far-off-land flying in and out with no knowledge of the situation, ready to move on to the next issue. Hague was clear: he has been watching Burma for some time, and will continue to do so. That in itself does a lot to boost the democracy movement.

Hague was unambiguous in spelling out what needed to be done. “There are hundreds of men and women still remaining in jail here for their beliefs,” he noted. “This has no place in any democracy, and it has no place in the future of this country.”

Such clarity is in contrast to the fudge delivered by so many diplomats, particularly from Burma’s neighbours. When accompanied by an outstretched hand, proferred with conditions, it stands a higher chance of boosting democracy than either uncritical engagement or sanctions and isolation would by themselves. Let’s hope, in contrast to ten months ago, the military intelligence watching Hague’s visit are saying “more change, more change.”

– Benedict Rogers is the author of "Than Shwe – Unmasking the Tyrant" and 
the East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

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