Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A moment in history no one could imagine

Tuesday, 18 September 2012 12:23 Tom Stuart

(Commentary) – Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival in the US on Monday is a watershed moment in Burmese history – coupled with the US announcement that it will move to rescind the ban on importing Burmese products and Burma’s nearly simultaneous release of a large number of political prisoners on Tuesday by its reform-minded government.

Such events trumpet both an end to a long road of pain, sacrifice and misery for the Burmese people and a new beginning – if all goes well – toward what could be a democratic future in Burma and a renewed economy on the move after decades of grinding stagnation.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein are shown in an earlier meeting, in a file photo. Photo: MRTV

Of course, how real political events will play out is anyone’s guess – but without doubt – a new stage has been set and a new cast of players is at center stage in Burma.

This week, the spotlight will be on Aung San Suu Kyi, as the world media follows her journey amongst the US elite, average US citizens, and Burmese natives who live in the US. It all starts on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., followed by a meeting with President Obama sometime this week, say reports.

The meeting will truly signal success both for Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner under house arrest for decades, and for present and past US administrations, which over decades administered a political “tough love,” penalizing Burma for its bloody, brutal repression while also urging it to “do the right thing” and reform itself to become a responsible member of the world community. 

In the early 1990s, the US imposed sanctions following the former military junta's refusal to hand over power to a democratically elected parliament, the brutal suppression of peaceful protests, and other major human rights violations.

As a mark of Burma’s progress, it will hand over to Suu Kyi on Wednesday the US Congressional Medal, the country’s highest honor, which was awarded to Suu Kyi when she was living a solitary existence under house arrest in Rangoon.

In a few more days, Thein Sein will take center stage to address the UN General Assembly in New York City, in what will be a well-deserved tribute to the person most responsible for instituting the democratic reforms which are rapidly transforming the face of Burma from a repressive military machine to a country governed by civilian politicians and guided by a civil society in which the people are starting to play a more direct and powerful role in molding the country’s affairs.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, told Voice of America on Monday that Suu Kyi has promoted a measured response.

“It’s not at all clear whether the military is going to cede the strong power it still has over most aspects of life in Burma,” he said. “That is the real test, and we have not yet seen whether Burma will meet that test.”

World governments have been placing their bets that Burma will somehow succeed. But again, it’s anyone’s guess how Burma’s story will unfold from here.

Both Suu Kyi, 67, and Thein Sein are aging, and it’s unclear who could replace them and keep the country on a democratic course. But that’s the way all countries’ stories unfold – nobody ever knows how it will end.

But for now, both Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, who have worked together as an informal team for more than one year, have a chance this week to tell Burma’s story to the US and the world – and how they see its future.

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