Simon Roughneen in Bangkok. As Burma comes to terms with an earthquake on Thursday evening that killed at least 75 people, the country’s seemingly never-ending political crisis goes on. Speaking to German media last week, opposition figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi asked European countries not to remove sanctions on the country’s rulers unless significant reforms are undertaken. “Sanctions must remain in place. Sanctions should only be lifted when something has changed here”, said the 1991 Nobel peace laureate.
European Union member-states, including Ireland, will decide whether to retain the measures at the bloc’s annual review of Burma policy next month. Suu Kyi’s comments came days after she met with a group of EU-country diplomats about sanctions on Burma.
Think-tanks such as Chatham House – which is part-funded by Total and Chevron, companies with energy investments in Burma – have spoken against the measures, saying that the establishment of a new parliament signals that there is some hope for reform in Burma, which has been ruled by the Army since 1962.
In November 2010, the military rulers staged elections for the first time in two decades. However the Army and its associated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) emerged with over 80% of seats in the new national and regional houses. A well-known Burmese comedy trio called The Moustache Brothers, all of whom have served prison time for satirising the country’s rulers, described post-election Burma as ‘old wine in a new bottles’, a description that seems to resonate with ordinary Burmese who are usually more preoccupied with making ends meet in one of Asia’s poorest countries.
The country’s new President is Thein Sein, who was a General and Prime Minister under the old system. Longtime military dictator Senior-General Than Shwe is heading up a new national security council, which will have the final say on whatever new laws are passed in Burma. The country’s 2011-12 budget – allocating 25% to the military but only 1% and 4% to health and education – was announced by decree on January 27 and will not be discussed in parliament.
A week after the November 7 vote, which was marred by allegations of ballot stuffing and ‘advance voting’, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest after her latest sentence expired. However over 2100 political prisoners are still in jail in Burma, including one of The Moustache Brothers, with no sign of their release.
Last week the country’s Home Affairs minister said that there would be no amnesty for these detainees, and added that the country’s new parliament was not the appropriate forum to discuss the matter. Western countries say that these prisoners should be released as a precondition for the lifting of sanctions, which include a travel ban for senior junta members and business cronies inside Burma.
The party that mooted the amnesty is the National Democratic Front (NDF), whose leaders broke from Suu Kyi’s proscribed National League for Democracy last year after the NLD decided to boycott what it viewed as sham elections. The NDF says that sanctions should be removed without preconditions, claiming that they adversely affect ordinary Burmese.
Irrespective of western sanctions, Burma is increasingly under the Chinese sphere of influence. Last week, Saudi oil giant Aramco announced a new deal in which its oil will be piped into China across Burma, once a new 2000km pipeline is finished in 2012. The facility will allow Beijing bypass the congested sea-lanes to the south, a strategic move which suggest China is hedging against any future maritime conflict with the United States, which for now has a vastly-bigger and better-equipped naval force. The pipeline runs through Shan State in Burma’s northeast, the region hit by the 6.8 earthquake on Thursday night.