The European Union agreed today to suspend visa bans on the president of Burma and other senior officials, following the “remarkable program of political reform” that recently culminated in the release of hundreds of jailed dissidents.
But some observers suggest that what US President Barack Obama described as ‘flickers of progress’ and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called the “quite extraordinary changes” taking place in the former military dictatorship are not the start of a democratic transition, but evidence of authoritarian adaptation.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to increase development assistance, provide training programs and strengthen dialogue in order to encourage further reform by President Thein Sein’s government. They called for “progressive engagement” by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
“These changes are opening up important new prospects for developing the relationship between the European Union and Burma/Myanmar,” the statement said.
More sanctions would be lifted if further reforms included the release of all remaining political prisoners, free and fair by-elections in April and progress in resolving ethnic conflicts. EU sanctions currently…
…. target nearly a thousand firms and institutions with asset freezes and visa bans have affected almost 500 people. The sanctions also include an arms embargo, a prohibition on technical assistance related to the military and investment bans in the mining, timber and precious metals sectors.
The United States should engage Thein Sein’s government and “lift sanctions when they think the time is right,” said Nobel Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The U.S. has laid out very clearly what the conditions are for the removal of sanctions. If this government wants sanctions to be removed, they will have to try and meet those conditions,” she said at the weekend.
Those conditions include a peace agreement with ethnic groups and further prisoner releases, she said.
“There should be an end to all hostilities in the ethnic areas,” she said. “There has been a cease-fire with the KNU [Karen National Union] but not yet with the KIA [Kachin Independence Army]. That is a big problem for the country.”*
The EU’s offer of assistance and call for international financial institutions to support the reform process will be welcomed by Daw Suu Kyi.
Her biggest worry is “that even those who want to reform are not quite sure how to go about it” she said. “There is so much to be done — this is why I am keen on an assessment by the World Bank as a first step towards finding out what we need to do.”
But she also hinted at concerns that the president’s power base remains narrow and potentially fragile within the country’s powerful armed forces by rejecting comparison of Thein Sein with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Gorbachev came into power gradually through the ranks, and he had his grip on power quite firmly before he started going towards reform,” she said. “Thein Sein is in a rather different situation. I think very few people expected him to become head of state. He was not the highest-ranking member in the military government under Gen. [Than] Shwe.”
Some commentators are also concerned that the reform process has yet to impact the key centers of power and remains relatively cosmetic, citing the relaxation of media censorship as an example.
“By Myanmar’s lowly benchmark, these changes are drastic; but as always, a gulf remains between relative and absolute measures of the country’s democratic progress,” writes analyst Sebastian Strangio. “Despite the recent changes to media rules, it remains unclear if Myanmar’s leadership has any interest in creating an unfettered press.”
One Yangon-based local journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said changes to the media were a subordinate “by-product” of this wider process of reform. Unlike the old generals, who feared independent press scrutiny, the new breed of politicians have discovered that engaging the media — for example, by holding press conferences and taking unscripted questions from the audience — can be used to bolster their own popularity. “They have started to enjoy using the media for their own interests,” the journalist said. And as living standards rise, the government’s plan is that people “will keep their mouths shut and not say anything about politics,” an approach that mirrors those in countries like China, Vietnam, and Singapore — hardly paragons of press freedom.
“The end-game here is not some kind of rapid transition to a genuine democracy, but an evolution of a more sophisticated authoritarian structure,” said David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, is the principal funder of Burma’s democratic and civil society movements, including programs in support of the country’s Kachin, Karenni and other ethnic minority groups in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.