This week will be remembered as the week in which Burmese President Thein Sein was given the domestic and international legitimacy that he has sought since assuming office in March. If handled properly, all of the events of the politically-action-packed last few days could be good for the Burmese people, but it is now Thein Sein’s responsibility to ensure that this in fact is the case.
First, the decision by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to award Burma its 2014 chair was welcome news. Burma has been Asean’s troubled child since the country was accepted into the regional bloc in 1997. Hopefully, being given the chair will result in better behavior by the Burmese leaders than in the past. If this happens, then heading up Asean for a year could be one stepping stone in the Burmese government’s path towards regaining the support of its own people and reconnecting with the rest of the world.
Burma had been meant to chair Asean in 2006, but the junta’s poor human rights record and heavy-handed suppression of public dissent and democratic opposition precluded it from receiving the chairmanship that year. The fact that Asean has never pressured any other country to bypass its turn for the chair for political reasons shows to what extreme depths the Burmese regime had fallen.
When Burma was first admitted to Asean, one of the primary arguments in favor of accepting the then ruthless authoritarian military regime into the fold was to keep Burma out of China’s sphere of influence. This did not work out as planned, however, because Burma is notable as being the Southeast Asian country most predominantly under the dragon’s sway.
Even those that have advocated isolating the repressive Burmese regime would admit that the more Burma was shunned by the international community, the more China was able to waltz in, gobble up resources and throw its considerable weight around. As a result, Burma became almost literally dependent on China, a fact that neither the pro-democracy opposition nor the ruling military leaders (except those generals and cronies who made out like bandits with Chinese money) were happy about.
As a result, it became an open secret that Burma’s current leaders wanted to repair their strained relations with Washington and put some breathing space between themselves and China. In recent months, the Burmese foreign minister has visited Washington D.C. and US diplomats have made several trips to Naypyidaw. In addition, Thein Sein sent a clear signal that his administration would not bow down to China when he suspended the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project.
Zaw Htay, the director of Thein Sein’s office, wrote in the Washington Post this week: “What the West must realize is that in today’s geopolitical situation, particularly given the rise of China, it needs Myanmar [Burma]. Washington and others must help facilitate Myanmar’s connection to the outside world at this critical juncture. My president’s cancellation of the Beijing-backed Myitsone Dam signaled to the world what he stands for. If the United States neglects this opportunity, Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indochina region.”
However, contrary to Zaw Htay’s arrogant and propagandist implication that the new Burmese government is somehow the engine of a “new order” in Southeast Asia and the US needs to board the train before it leaves the station, the Burmese leaders are fully aware that the US is in fact the power making a big push in the Asia Pacific region and Burma must sprint to catch up—at least to the level of the lowest common denominator of its Asean peers—or risk falling so far out of sight they will never be able to recover.
Before landing in Bali, US President Barack Obama spoke to the Australian Parliament and declared: “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” This message was a blunt challenge to China’s clout in the region, and while unmistakably directed at Beijing it has significant implications for Burma as well.
Since there was already a general feeling among the Burmese population that it is time to find a counterbalance to China and reintegrate into the world community, Obama’s statement and the award of the Asean chairmanship provide the opportunity to do just that.
However, if Thein Sein and his new government are truly serious about becoming a respected member of the international community, it must first put its own house in order. And while it may have opened a few windows to let in some fresh air and tidied up a bit over the last few months, the nominally civilian government has yet to make the more significant structural repairs that are necessary—of which there is a long list.
Burma still has thousands of political prisoners, ongoing human rights abuses, conflict in ethnic regions and the absence of the rule of law.