Two phrases have come to dominate conversations about Burma in recent weeks – “charm offensive” and “wait and see”. It is time to redefine the conversation.
As far as the regime’s “charm offensive” is concerned, no one disputes that some things have changed in Burma. Six months ago, the military intelligence told me that there was “no change, no change,” as they threw me out of the country. However, now that assessment is no longer valid. The question we should ask is not whether there is change, but how much, how significant, how deep and how permanent it is?
That Thein Sein invited Aung San Suu Kyi to Naypyidaw, allowed the meeting to be publicised, and that she has remarked on how positive their talks were is clearly a shift on the regime’s part. Whether it is merely a shift in style and tone, or a real shift in attitude, is unclear, but it is a change from the days when the regime refused to talk to her. It is also different from the previous talks that have been held. In the past, when Suu Kyi has been released from periods of house arrest, talks took place secretly, with no joint statements, no public comments, no media coverage beyond speculation. This time, it seems, was different.
For the time being, despite being ‘illegal’ in the regime’s view, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has had more space in which to operate. Suu Kyi’s diary is full of meetings with her supporters, other actors within the country and foreign diplomats and activists. The NLD office, as one Burmese told me, is the busiest place in Rangoon. That is a change.
This weekend the regime announced that previously banned websites would be permitted in Burma, enabling Burmese internet users to access DVB, Radio Free Asia and YouTube, among others. That is a change.
These changes must be welcomed. To do otherwise would be churlish, and counter-productive. However, to think that because one meeting has taken place, the NLD has some space and some websites have been unblocked, a process of democratisation and transition is underway would be a mistake. If the regime wants to show it is serious, it needs to do much more.
Based on the evidence so far, these changes, while welcome, represent little more than a charm offensive. Furthermore, it is a quite unique charm offensive, for it combines a small amount of charm and still plenty of offensives.
Since the sham elections in November last year and the formation of a new parliament and government, the regime has broken two ceasefires with armed ethnic groups, one with the Shan which had lasted 22 years, the other with the Kachin, which had held for 17 years. Among its first acts as a supposedly new civilian-led government was to launch new offensives against civilians in northern Shan state, Kachin state and continue attacks on Karen and others. Forced labour, rape as a weapon of war, the destruction of villages, the use of human minesweepers, the forcible recruitment of child soldiers, religious persecution, torture and killings continue. The Rohingya continue to be denied citizenship, subjected to severe restrictions on movement, marriage, access to education and freedom of religion. At least 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars.
Until there is clear action to end these violations, we cannot speak of meaningful change; until all political prisoners are free, we cannot say Burma has reformed; until the regime declares a nationwide ceasefire, ends the violations and addresses impunity, we cannot talk of national reconciliation. At the very least, as a starting point, the charm offensive must involve substantiating the charm with action, and ending the offensives against ethnic people.
The second phrase in the international vocabulary about Burma is “wait and see”. This expression has been in circulation for a long time. Sadly, international policy-makers have spent too much time waiting and seeing, and that is one reason why Burma does not have the freedom it deserves. Every time there is a development in Burma, diplomats say we must “wait and see”. When there is a setback, a crackdown, a new offensive, a blatantly sham constitution and fake elections, we are told it is too soon to act – we must wait and see how it develops. When there are apparent good steps, such as the release of Suu Kyi or some signs of potential change, we are told we must wait and see how they develop. This passivity has got us nowhere.
So we should make a small but significant change of wording. Let’s replace “wait and see” with “work and see”. If we simply continue to wait, we will never see the change we all desire. However, if we work for it, with a combination of tools and strategies, we can help the people of Burma win their struggle for freedom.
What does that work entail? A combination of targeted pressure, high-level diplomatic engagement, increased practical and financial support for Burmese civil society and pro-democracy groups working for change, inside the country and along its borders, and increased humanitarian aid, within the country, cross-border and along the borders to address the dire humanitarian situation.
Pressure must be maintained. Now is not the time to let up on the regime. Pressure must be targeted, and it must be made clear that pressure can be eased if there are genuine changes and tightened if there are setbacks. That pressure should include the continuation of targeted sanctions, and a strengthening of the UN General Assembly resolution next month, to address the impunity question.
This should be combined with a high-level engagement approach, involving the UN Secretary General. Now is the time for him to appoint a new Special Envoy, to lead a concerted effort to support a dialogue process. The meeting between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein was welcome, but by itself it does not amount to dialogue. One meeting is not dialogue, just as one date is not a marriage. Steps need to be taken by the UN, and by Burma’s neighbours, particularly China, India, Thailand and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia, to encourage an inclusive dialogue process that involves Suu Kyi, the democracy movement, the ethnic nationalities and the regime.
Practical and financial support for groups inside the country, and those working in exile, who are working for democratisation should be strengthened. These include Burmese pro-democracy media, women’s organisations, trade unions and civil society groups working, often underground, on social issues such as the environment and HIV/AIDS as well as politics and human rights.
Serious attention should be paid to the developing humanitarian crisis, both within the country and along the borders. Many international actors are talking of working more inside the country, and that is to be welcomed. However, it should not be at the expense of the vulnerable refugees and internally displaced peoples along the borders.
It should not be an ‘either/or’ choice, but a ‘both/and’ approach, ensuring that refugees are not forcibly repatriated until there is real change and it is safe for them to return home, and that in the meantime they continue to receive the protection, shelter, food, medical care and education they need, not only to survive but to prepare for the day when they can eventually return home and help rebuild their country.
So let’s agree that while there may be some signs of potential opportunities for change, the regime’s past record shows that there have been similar apparent openings before, which have been followed by severe crackdowns. Let’s find ways to seize the moment, and help push wide the door which may have opened a crack. If the charm is sincere, the offensives should end, and if we are to see real change, we must work, not wait.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and author of ‘Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant’ (Silkworm Books, 2010).