A shakeup in Yangon has refocused international attention on the reclusive regime in Myanmar. The ousting of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt bodes ill for hopes of democratic reform in the country and will increase tension between Myanmar and ASEAN, and between ASEAN and the West. Concerned governments need to send a message — and then act to reinforce it — there can be no backtracking on pledges to move toward democracy.
Gen. Khin Nyunt took over as prime minister last year in a leadership shuffle that was generally considered little more than an attempt to put a pleasant face on a repressive regime. The new prime minister, the former head of intelligence, was viewed as a reformer, at least relative to other senior members of the government. But there were warnings that the move was in fact a demotion. The position is largely ceremonial and Mr. Khin Nyunt’s predecessor, Gen. Than Shwe, maintained power as chair of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the body that actually governs Myanmar.
As expected, the new prime minister announced a seven-step “road map to democracy” that would culminate in elections at some unspecified time. Yet there were warning signs, too. The special envoy of the United Nations secretary general, Mr. Razali Ismail, had brokered talks between the government and prodemocracy leaders since October 2000, but they broke down last year even though Mr. Khin Nyunt made all the appropriate comments about the need to resume dialogue with the opposition forces in Myanmar, led by the National League of Democracy and its head, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been under house arrest after government-supported mobs launched violent attacks against her in May of last year.
Whatever the rationale for naming Mr. Khin Nyunt prime minister, it apparently evaporated last week. He was dismissed — for “health reasons” although there are also reports of corruption among military units — and replaced by Lt. Gen. Soe Win, a close ally of Gen. Than Shwe who formerly served as first secretary of the SPDC. By all accounts, Mr. Soe Win is an unvarnished hardliner who was reportedly involved in the attacks on Ms. Suu Kyi last year.
The move puts pressure on ASEAN, which has long argued for engagement with Yangon as a way of moving the dialogue on domestic reform forward. That approach fits ASEAN’s policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member states. ASEAN governments have also worried about Beijing’s increasing influence in Myanmar and have argued against isolation to prevent the country from falling into China’s sphere of influence.
Unfortunately for ASEAN, Myanmar is not cooperating. Yangon is not compromising on negotiations with the NLD and appears to be proceeding with a road map that is little more than a device to institutionalize the rule of the junta. As a result, ASEAN’s credibility has suffered, which explains its increasing willingness to criticize Yangon. There has been sufficient time to test the hypothesis that engagement can bring about change in Yangon: The answer thus far is that it does not work. The leadership in Myanmar has been eager to pocket whatever concessions it can without changing its own behavior.
Most recently, ASEAN convinced European leaders to swallow their complaints and allow Myanmar to join the biannual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), although at a lower level of representation than the other participants. The controversy over Myanmar’s attendance had threatened to scuttle the meeting, but it went ahead earlier this month. The dismissal of Mr. Khin Nyunt is certain to provide more grist for critics who call for a harder line.
The United States has already warned that it will not attend the 2006 ASEAN summit, which is scheduled to be chaired by Myanmar, if Ms Suu Kyi is not released. Some EU members have argued for a similar policy; last week’s maneuvers will give them more credibility. Japan has backed engagement. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said that membership in ASEM would push Myanmar in a positive direction. Yet Tokyo also wants to see “substantive progress of the democratization process in Myanmar” and “the full involvement of all the parties including the National League for Democracy, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities in the National Convention.”
Officials from the ruling junta insist that the road map is still in place. But words can no longer suffice. Yangon’s actions have done little to inspire confidence. There is no alternative to genuine steps toward reform in Myanmar. The rest of the world must be prepared to back up its demands for democracy and human rights with concrete actions.
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