While the Nov. 7 election scheduled for Burma has been dismissed by many observers in advance as a charade aimed at keeping the military junta in power, equivalent polls are unlikely anytime soon in countries such as China, Vietnam and North Korea.
“When was the last time China had an election, or Vietnam?” asked US Senator Jim Webb when meeting journalists in Bangkok back in June. He posed the rhetorical question once more in Washington, D.C. last week when urging the Obama administration not to let Burma become a Chinese province.
In his recently-published biography of Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Burma’s reclusive and inaccessible ruler, author Ben Rogers ranked Burma as slightly less oppressive than North Korea.
Foreign Policy magazine ran an article earlier this year ranking Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s ailing strongman, as the world’s “worst of the worst,” describing him as “a personality-cult-cultivating isolationist with a taste for fine French cognac” and going on to say that “Kim has pauperized his people, allowed famine to run rampant and thrown hundreds of thousands in prison camps (where as many as 200,000 languish today)—all while spending his country’s precious few resources on a nuclear program.”
Than Shwe came in at No. 3 on the list, separated from Kim Jong Il by Zimbabwe’s General Robert Mugabe, who was described as “a heartless military coconut head whose sole consuming preoccupation is power.”
However, might the leader of the Naypyidaw regime soon climb to the top of the list of the world’s worst tyrants?
Zimbabwe’s power-sharing deal between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvingirai is dysfunctional, but it is almost impossible to envisage Than Shwe doing something similar with Aung San Suu Kyi.
As for North Korea, Ben Rogers recently joined Lord David Alton, the chairman of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for North Korea, and Baroness Caroline Cox, the APPG’s vice-chairman, on a visit to that country. In contrast, Rogers said that the Burmese regime’s London embassy refused to allow Lord Alton and Baroness Cox to conduct a visit to Burma six years ago. Both are vocal supporters of the democratization movement in Burma and have visited the Thai-Burma border region many times.
Lord Alton told The Irrawaddy that “there is a cautious sense of change in the air in North Korea and analysts would be foolish not pick up on the re-ordered priorities being referred to in their communiqués. Prosperity and dignity have replaced ‘military first’ and ‘self-reliance’ as the catch phrases.”
The years of hermetic isolation and economic mismanagement in North Korea are taking their toll, with the North Korean regime, and increasingly the long-suffering people, becoming somewhat more aware of changes on the outside, particularly the spectacular economic growth in China and South Korea’s transition to prosperity. In contrast once again, Lord Alton believes that the Burmese junta is indifferent to the country’s isolation from its neighbors and its idiosyncratic place in global affairs.
During their visit to North Korea, their third since 2003, Lord Alton and Baroness Cox met senior North Korean officials including the speaker of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Choe Tae Bok, the vice foreign-minister, Kung Sok Ung and the chairman of the DPRK-EU Friendly Parliamentary Group of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Ri Jong Hyok.
Baroness Cox said: “During our visit, we raised important concerns, and we also saw some small, incremental signs of change in North Korea. We believe these changes, particularly in education, health care and the economy, should be encouraged by increased cultural and educational exchanges, and greater access to the country for international humanitarian organizations.”
After the visit, the delegation issued a report calling on the international community to facilitate a peace conference to turn the Korean armistice into a permanent peace agreement and argued that leadership changes taking place in Pyongyang offer a moment of opportunity to engage the regime.
However, human rights abuses remain pervasive in North Korea, with no access to its vast gulag for the International Committee of the Red Cross (which is also not permitted to visit Burma’s more than 2,100 political prisoners).
In addition, North Korea stands accused of collaborating with the Burmese junta on a nuclear weapons program and Pyongyang remains a major security threat in the eyes of South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Cross-border shooting took place last week at the time South Korea’s prime minister was attending the Asian summit in Hanoi. In addition, South Korea will host the upcoming G-20 summit to be attended by US President Barack Obama taking place next week, after the Burma election, and security analysts speculate that Pyongyang might undertake some form of military action to scupper or undermine the G-20 gathering.
Recently, the previously unknown 27-year-old Kim Jong-un was a promoted to a senior army position, presaging a likely succession once his father and current dictator Kim Jong Il dies. Kim Jong Un was described as a “legendary person” who received the same “holy blood” as his father. Pyongyang’s state propaganda continued: “He is a genius with exceptional talent,” adding that “Anybody who meets him . . . wants to worship him.”Show