Calming ‘irrational exuberance’ over Burma – The Irrawaddy


Burma President Thein Sein pictured at the 2010 ASEAN/EAS summit in Hanoi, when he was Prime Minister under the military junta (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

ABU DHABI – Three weeks after U.S. Sec of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, the U.S. says it “will be prepared to take further steps” provided the Burmese Government “keeps moving in the right direction”, according to a U.S. State Dept. spokesperson.

During her visit to Burma, the first to the country by an U.S. Sec. Of State since Burma was made a military dictatorship in 1962, Sec. Clinton announced a number of initiatives that the United States plans in Burma. These include increased assistance for civil society programs to support microcredit and health programs; a resumption of counternarcotics cooperation and operations to recover missing U.S. military personnel from World War II; and support for an expanded UNDP mandate in the areas of health, education, and micro-finance, as well as assessment missions by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

“We are currently taking steps to move forward on all of the actions that Secretary Clinton noted during her visit”, added the spokesperson, in an emailed response to questions about U.S. policy after the Clinton visit.

The Clinton visit, and the pledges made, came after the Burmese government – a formally civilian administration dominated by figures from the previous military system – relaxed media controls, released over 200 political prisoners, suspended a US$3.6 billion Chinese dam in the north of the country, and announced new laws allowing trade unions and another permitting political protest – the latter signed into law by Burma’s President Thein Sein during Clinton’s visit to Burma.

Former political prisoner Maung Thura, better-known by his stage-name Zarganar, was granted permission to travel to Thailand and Cambodia in recent days. “Now I’m here, this is improvement,” he was quoted telling journalists in Bangkok on Dec. 19, referring to the recent changes inside Burma.

However, some Burmese exiles and long-time Burma watchers remain cynical about the recent reform moves, suggesting that the U.S. should adopt a cautious approach for now, until the Burmese Government undertakes more reforms, such as the release of all remaining political prisoners and the cessation of military operations in ethnic minority regions.

Jennifer Quigley, Advocacy Director at the U.S Campaign for Burma, believes that despite Sec. Clinton’s various policy pledges made during her three day visit to Burma, the Burmese Government “in return offered nothing before, during, or after her trip”.

She added that “If the regime is serious in its desire to have a better relationship with the United States, it must go beyond empty promises and actually deliver. They cannot continue to say they are going to release all political prisoners, they must actually release all political prisoners.”

In the days leading up to the Clinton visit, which ran from Nov. 30 – Dec. 2, Burma was awarded the 2014 Chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), two years ahead of schedule. An unspecified number of the country’s remaining political prisoners – estimated at anything between 500 and 1700 – were rumoured to be set for release that week.

The release did not take place, though some prisoners were moved to prisons closer to families. According to Asia analyst Walter Lohman, of the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, the seeming about-face on political prisoner release was not a coincidence, and was “apparently abandoned after Burma was awarded the 2014 chairmanship.”

More political prisoners are now thought to be up for release early in 2012, a move that could prompt overtures from governments such as the U.K., whose Foreign Secretary William Hague will visit Burma in January 2012.

Burma’s capital Naypyidaw and biggest city Rangoon are hosting foreign visitors – be they heads of government or business delegations – in increasing number and seemingly in anticipation of a reduction of western sanctions on the Burmese government and its main domestic business partners.

Amid this increased activity, the U.S. should do more to build a co-ordinated response to reforms in Burma, say some analysts.

Kelley Currie, a Senior Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, says that rewarding the Burmese government prematurely risks undermining the reform process.“There are those in the EU and among Asian allies who are ready to rush in with big aid and investment packages, and who are less concerned about ensuring that this reform process is irreversible”, she said, adding that the U.S. should try “to keep the irrational exuberance that some other countries have been experiencing a bit in check.”

When asked, the U.S. State Dept. spokesperson declined to comment specifically on what further steps the U.S. is prepared to take, should the Burmese Government undertake additional reforms, such as the release of more political prisoners.

One possible next step, according to Kelley Currie, would be for the Burmese government to permit international observers to work inside Burma during the country’s upcoming by-elections, which will be contested by long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has given her blessing to the recent reforms in Burma. No date has been set for the by-elections, but “free and fair” elections are one of the conditions set down by the U.S. for the eventual lifting of sanctions on Burma.

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