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Political Games and economic trade offs in Myanmar

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By Rama Rao Malladi 

 Myanmar  Derek Mitchell, named as the US envoy to Myanmar is an Asian expert and the appointment has gone down well with democracy groups in that country, particularly pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who sees the appointment as the expression of American determination to help usher in true democratic reforms in her country.

On Sunday, April 17, Myanmar welcomed its new year. Suu Kyi's disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD) heralded the New Year with a four day festivities at the party office, and prayed for "peace and happiness and hope for the future".

It will take a while for Derek Mitchell to take up his new post. To begin with he needs the Senate's confirmation, which from all accounts, appears to be a formality. But as and when he lands in Myanmar, he will have tough job of negotiating with Yangon, which is still military dominated, even after last year's election.

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To what extent Suu Kyi's latest pro- sanctions stance, and her public statement that she  looks upon Mitchell as a friend will endear her to the regime is unclear. One thing is clear though.  The regime will do its best to either co-opt her or defeat her strategy by turning towards and relying on energy and resource hungry neighbors for trade and investment.

Washington also is not oblivious to the reality. This is clear from its willingness to engage the junta.  And it stems from the realisation that the sanctions route has not delivered. Nonetheless, the US cannot afford to dilute its economic and political sanctions since these are linked to Myanmar's human rights record. More so when it has invoked human rights issue in neighbouring China while seeking solutions to its trade disputes.  

The European Union, which, along Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, has also imposed strict sanctions on Myanmar, has recently reached the conclusion that its sanctions had failed to achieve their political goals. Its internal review also found that the sanctions had "undoubtedly contributed to the stagnation and continuing impoverishment of the people."  The EU review concluded, according to the Christian Science Monitor, non-statutory curbs on multilateral aid such as World Bank loans, had primarily affected Myanmar's rural poor.
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Some analysts aver that Suu Kyi sees sanctions as her political leverage 'since the US and other governments take a lead from her stance'. In a statement on Feb 8, her NLD claimed that economic conditions had "not been affected by sanctions to any notable degree" and it was "ready for talks with Western governments on how the restrictions could eventually be modified with a view to improving human rights".   Suu Kyi apparently believes that she can use her influence on the West as leverage to coax the reclusive generals toward reforms.

Expectedly, the regime came down heavily on Suu Kyi and her party.  A commentary that ran in several newspapers (on Feb 13, 2011) warned of a "tragic end" for the party and its leader. "If Daw Suu Kyi and the NLD keep going to the wrong way ignoring the fact that today's Myanmar is marching to a new era, new system and new political platforms paving the way for democracy, they will meet their tragic end," the commentary said. A strong comment but it clearly shows a readiness to limit the turf space for Suu Kyi and an unwillingness to cooperate with her on her terms.

In this age of eternal chase for markets, sanctions have limited utility and value. If the sanctions could not shake the White Man controlled Northern Rhodesia years ago, they cannot deliver miracles in Yangon today.  Anyhow Yangon has adopted an ingenious approach to make Western sanctions irrelevant. 

While Suu Kyi is a big player, she alone is not the player at the moment in Myanmar and she will have to dovetail all her energies to rebuild her party and make it a politically active platform.  

In politics, like in sports, credentials alone are not enough. Performance counts. Since her release in November, Suu Kyi has focused on rebuilding her NLD. She has been reaching out to the youth. This is enough. She must devise ways and means to reach out to the ethnic minorities and the tribal groups in the outlying areas of the country.   The regime has subdued the tribals with the help of China but it is still an uneasy equation. And it provides the opening for the NLD leader to put in place a more broad based national coalition alternative.  

The foregoing is not a case to ignore to rights abuses but a dispassionate plea to approach the problem in   a frame work tailored to meet Myanmar's conditions. That such an approach brooks no delay is clear from the latest report that rights abuses in the country, particularly the ethnic areas, are leading to health "catastrophe".  Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Burma rights advocacy group, Altsean, says 'Public health indicators in ethnic areas are similar to that of long-term war-torn countries like Rwanda and Sierra Leone' 

A new study by the US-based NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), said that human rights abuses and counter-insurgency campaigns in Chin state (Western Myanmar), are causing a 'health catastrophe'. The situation is no different in Shan state (Eastern Myanmar).

In Chin, almost 92 percent of households experience forced labour and reported the military stealing or destroying their family's food stock.  Forty-three percent of families reported moderate to severe household hunger to PHR.  Families whose food was destroyed or seized reported hunger levels more than six times higher than those left alone, according to PHR.

In eastern Shan, the child mortality rate is almost double and maternal mortality triple the national average (122 per 1,000 live births and 380 per 100,000 live births, respectively. Nearly one-third of all households in Shan State reported one or more human rights abuses from 2009 to 2010, according to a separate 2010 health survey.  Displaced families are about three times more likely to have acutely malnourished children. Almost half a million people are displaced in Myanmar. 

The message is clear. Whatever be the political games and the economic trade offs on offer, the international community, particularly the neighbours have a responsibility to ensure a better deal to the    people of Myanmar.
Ends

 

Rama Rao Malladi is New Delhi based senior journalist and distinguished commentator on South Asian and Central Asian issues. He is a regular contributor to several publications in and outside India. His articles are featured in News Blaze.Rama is (more...)
 

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Myanmar is literally at cross roads of history.&nb... by Rama Rao Malladi on Monday, May 16, 2011 at 10:02:14 AM