CHIANG MAI — The hopeful news from Myanmar calls for a pause and reflection: What really triggered these happy developments? Which is the most appropriate course for the international community to follow on the strenuous road to a full blossoming of democracy in Myanmar?
Western countries are heralding the fruits of sanctions and the tough line that isolated and marginalized Myanmar internationally. Asian countries, especially members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, consider the release of Aung San Suu Kyi to be a result of their moderate policies of engagement, dialogue and inclusion.
I lean toward favoring the Asian view. If sanctions were such magical tools, they should have bore results much earlier instead of bringing about change after more than a decade of tyranny under the military regime. Moreover, the sanctions’ supporters should have called for the removal of blatant contradictions, such as lambasting the Myanmar government on the one hand while tolerating business dealings by Western companies with the same regime on the other.
The release of Suu Kyi appears to be a result of a combination of several factors rather than one: First, sanctions and isolation had an impact, but only to a certain degree.
Second, both antagonists gradually came to the realization that reconciliation would ultimately benefit both them as well as the country.
Third, Malaysian mediator Ambassador Razali Ismail managed to begin positively engaging the two camps two years ago, even before sanctions had assumed their present vigorous and threatening level. The choice of a Malaysian envoy was most appropriate, given Kuala Lumpor’s close links with Yangon.
What road map of action should guide the international community in the medium term? The first point to recognize is that it will be some time before an ideal regime takes power in Myanmar. Suu Kyi has fully earned her Nobel Peace Prize by steadfastly advocated the removal of the present regime through peaceful means. Realistically speaking, however, such an undertaking has to include a means of allowing the generals to quietly fade away in a framework of national reconciliation.
In this respect, while the two camps engage in this “tightrope” process, the international community should avoid taking extreme actions. Instead it should reward the military regime when it makes concessions and appropriately penalize it when it procrastinates.
Sanctions alone will not bring about a solution: As pointed out by a Singapore newspaper editorial, the generals “do not give much of a damn about Western agitation.” While force may be the only language the generals understand, it is a double-edged sword because it can harm innocent Myanmar people more than the regime.
Sanctions could, however, be combined with other means, for instance the downgrading of bilateral diplomatic relations both in form and in substance.
Moreover, the European Union, in particular, should review its general policies regarding ASEAN: Boycotting intraregional meetings because of a justifiable allergy toward the generals in Yangon may one day be viewed as a mistake, much as the Myanmar regime errs by objecting to East Timor’s participation in ASEAN due to its former links to the Myanmar opposition.
Finally, the West should try to understand that things in Myanmar are not simply black and white, Suu Kyi vs. the generals. There is a third actor in this drama, namely the country’s ethnic minorities. As long as this issue is not properly addressed, there will always be military hotheads posing as national saviors, with all the catastrophic consequences that we have been witnessing for several decades now.
The real issue is national unity. As Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San said, “. . . If we are divided, the Karen, the Shan, the Kachin, the Chin, the Burmese, the Mon and the Arakanese, each pulling in a different direction, the union will be torn and we will come to grief. Let us unite and work together.”
It is imperative that the opposition leader and the generals work together to establish harmonious relations among all ethnic groups in the country, eliminating at the same time the scourge of drugs and crime.
At this moment, the situation is evolving toward a sharing of power, with Suu Kyi working within the present system in line with the wishes of some inspired Buddhist monks. This may not be ideal, given the spectacular popular mandate given to her a few years ago and the generals’ illegitimate hold on power. But to deal with the generals quietly is the stiff price a true leader like Suu Kyi must pay as she strives to achieve normalcy, decency, dignity and true reconciliation using the tools of peace and passive resistance bequeathed to humanity by perhaps the loftiest figure of the last century, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.
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