The dizzying events of last week will have wounded the cynicism of many observers that, since March last year, have poured doubt on the intentions of Burma’s government. What unfolded on Thursday and Friday was something few could prepare for – a possible end to the world’s longest-running civil war and the sight of hundreds of Burma’s most revered political icons returning home after years behind bars. They were two key demands set by the west, which has quickly revised its attitude towards the country: the US announced on Friday evening that it would appoint an ambassador to Burma, and the EU has mooted a policy shift that could soon see sanctions lifted.
The reactions have been quick, and the celebrations spirited. After decades when the regime appeared to take one step forwards, two steps back, a feeling that the reform programme is genuine is beginning to reshape attitudes towards Burma. We will continue to applaud what happened last week, and the potential impact these revitalised figures can have on Burma’s future, but we must urgently address what yet remains at a distance, and the fact that for all the pomp that surrounded the amnesty, it was a symbolic move that will mean little unless the government translates its rosy rhetoric into concrete policy.
Student leader Min Ko Naing wasted no time in addressing these concerns – upon his release from Thayet prison in Bago division, he boarded a local bus to Rangoon, 550 kilometres away. Over the next two days, the indefatigable activist stopped in various towns along the route to thank his supporters and urge that their applause for recent moves does not take the energy out of pressing for further, tangible reform. Ashin Gambira, the influential monk leader who was routinely tortured during his detention, was more vitriolic: “Don’t get all poetic with the nice vocabulary, ‘the change’. There has been this parroting of the word ‘change’ since [US President Barrack] Obama said it, but what has changed in reality? We’ve suffered so much abuse that even the tiniest rights awarded are being blown out of proportion.”
Tempering the excitement is wise, particularly in light of the fact that while the make-up of those released on Friday shows an apparent boldness to the government, less than 300 political prisoners were freed. That leaves more than 1,000 behind bars, a figure similar to that of five years ago when the former junta was in power. Moreover, ominous conditions are attached to the freedom of many ex-political prisoners. Sithu Zeya, who was handed an 18-year sentence as a 21-year-old for his work for DVB, will have to serve his full sentence if he breaks any of Burma’s highly arbitrary laws in the future: “It’s like we are being freed with leashes still attached to our necks,” he said upon leaving Henzada prison.
Caution also dogs the historic ceasefire between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU). Although it is the first time the two sides have agreed a truce in their six decade conflict, there is an acute distrust among the Karen of the government, in whichever form it presents itself. This war has seen everything, and no thrashed-out agreement will turn around decades of inhumane treatment and neglect by the country’s rulers. “A quick ceasefire now would be tantamount to surrender – that’s what the people are worried about,” the KNU’s vice president, David Thackabaw, told DVB just before the agreement was reached. “We will be very cautious and look at the problem from all angles.”
What will likely follow the ceasefire and political prisoner amnesty is a rush by the west to plant a stake in Burma. The government has, on the surface, moved towards meeting key benchmarks the US and EU demanded as proof of its democratic intentions, and with the EU’s sanctions up for review in April, a substantial policy change could be on the horizon. The IMF has also sent two teams to the country in the past four months to help “fix” its beleaguered economy. Writing in The Guardian last week, developmental economist Gabriele Köhler warned that such reforms may turn Burma into the new hunting ground for neoliberals bent on drawing the country into the clutches of the west. “History has shown time and again that popular movements for civil liberties, democracy and human rights are often hijacked by a drive to introduce neoliberal capitalism or prize open a country to foreign investors.”
That will certainly ring alarm bells in Karen state, where two days after the ceasefire was signed, a US satellite reported the discovery of the country’s largest gold deposit, which lies directly beneath ground that Karen troops may retreat over in the coming months and which can “produce a thousand tons of gold for hundreds of years”. The discovery illuminates a cynical but important way of reading both the ceasefire on Thursday and ongoing wars in the north – that the government is attempting to prepare these resource-rich areas for investment, which will arrive once the ‘political’ reforms, including prisoner amnesties, reach a point where the US and EU are convinced that sanctions can be dropped (note that Norway has already removed its blockade). If that theory turns out to be true, then you can consider these conflicts as intrinsic to the political reforms underway – a perverse precursor to the ‘free’ Burma being hailed in the wake of last week’s developments.
These factors, and many others – can Aung San Suu Kyi really make an impact in a parliament dominated by the military, or in a country governed by a constitution that effectively legalises a military coup? – serve to cast doubt on the country’s future, as does the unfolding ‘race for Burma’ and its inevitable by-products. As the world learned after the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, moments of ‘change’ are often exploited by countries and institutions who proclaim the importance of human rights when it suits them, but quickly forget their supposed rationale and rush in to secure their loot. Days after British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Burma with a pledge of support for Suu Kyi, his boss, David Cameron, left for Saudi Arabia with a similar message for the dictatorship there, exemplifying how the country’s new suitors, whom many see as sharing the credit for the events of last week, play this game of diplomacy.
The landscape in Burma has unequivocally changed, and within this we see hope, but the challenges now are more complex and multifaceted. Burma’s pro-democracy struggle will then need to evolve to tackle new concerns, and fight to expose what are sure to be ongoing state-sanctioned violations of the rights expected in a democracy, but which stronger ties to western governments help to obscure.