In light of the historic uprisings across the Middle East and the success of protests in Egypt and Tunisia, many wonder about the potential for democratic change elsewhere in the world, especially considering the role technology played in the most recent revolutions and the continuing spread of this type of technology around the world.
Some have pointed to Asia, with its fair share of oppressive governments, as the next continent to watch. Small protests in Vietnam and China, and whispers of dissent in Burma have governments on edge and censors working overtime. However, just as outcomes vary in the Middle East, protests in Asia will not guarantee a regime change.
Burma is regularly mentioned as a country with potential for a fresh democratic uprising, and for obvious reasons. The people of Burma showed a willingness to rise up against their government in both 1988 and 2007, even without inspiration from outside forces. Also, like Egypt, Burma has a large population of young people with little economic opportunity, although access to quality education is more widely available for young people in Egypt than it is in Burma. Furthermore, Burma has the potential to be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia because of its rich natural resources; however, the average person in Burma lives in poverty. In 1988, students protested a rise in prices and state mismanagement of resources. In 2007, an abrupt rise in fuel prices sparked additional protests and the Saffron Revolution. Now, there are reports that commodity prices in Burma are set to rise along with fuel prices. If the price hikes are severe enough, it wouldn’t be out of the question or unprecedented for people in Burma to take to the streets, especially if activists inside and outside of Burma are inspired by similar movements in the Middle East.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 28, just as the world’s attention was becoming riveted to the pro-democracy protests taking place in Egypt, a pro-democracy leader from another repressive regime, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, sent an audio message to the Forum’s influential and powerful participants. In the course of her message, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate called upon the global community to begin investing in her country with developments in technology, infrastructure and microlending services. While Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned that, “we also need to pay close attention to the costs and collateral damage of our development, whether environmental or social,” she asserted that responsible investment was necessary to bring 55 million Burmese people into the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s message comes at a time when global attention has been fixated on the turmoil in the Middle East, leaving little airtime for vital discussions of reform in other oppressive regimes. Indeed, the only government who seems to have paid serious attention to her Davos remarks has been the Burmese military junta itself. After Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s message on increased development in Burma ignited a debate as to whether this was a call for the West to lift economic sanctions which inhibit Western investment, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), issued a statement two weeks ago re-iterating its support of “targeted sanctions.” In response, the mouthpiece of the military, the government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar, warned that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD could meet “tragic ends” for publicly supporting sanctions. Instead of discussing new alternatives for Western companies to invest in the Burmese people, the conversation has been diverted right back to where the junta wants it – old arguments over sanctions. (more…)
Reinvigoration of US policy in Southeast Asia is an early hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Besides the “soft power” boost from Obama’s boyhood ties to the region, there is considerable low-hanging fruit to gather. The administration’s commitment to multilateralism; willingness to engage former enemies or antagonists; signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; and a vow that the Secretary of State would attend the annual meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum – the last a dig at Condoleezza Rice, who missed two of the four ARF meetings – all contrast favorably to Southeast Asians’ impressions of second-term Bush administration policies.
In addition, the administration has announced an early menu of more specific innovations and adjustments. To strengthen US relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Obama will participate in the first-ever meeting of a US President with leaders from all ten ASEAN member states, to be held on the margins of this week’s APEC meeting. The US Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs will no longer be based in Washington but will move to Jakarta, where the ASEAN Secretariat is located. A new initiative in the Mekong region and the decision to lift OPIC restrictions on Cambodia and Laos shore up the US presence in the smaller, poorer countries of Southeast Asia that the United States had all but ceded to China in the past decade. But in terms of international attention, the sum of these policy shifts is overshadowed by the administration’s 45-degree turn in Burma policy, to pursue longstanding objectives of promoting political openness there by adding engagement to a sanctions-heavy policy.
From day one, there has been rampant speculation about what will test Obama on foreign policy. Iran and North Korea come up frequently as countries that could force Obama into a crisis situation. However, I think that another country may be the real test of the fledgling Obama doctrine: Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial last week. Her crime is allowing an American trespasser, John Yettaw, who swam to her isolated house uninvited, to spend a night in her guest room. This violated the rules of her house arrest, which she has been under for years. The house arrest was about to end and conventional wisdom holds that the Burmese generals who rule the country would have trumped up some reason to keep her under lock and key. Yettaw just saved them the trouble of having to make something up.
The U.S. has condemned the trial, just as we have condemned every action by the ruling junta since they took control of the country decades ago. The Administration also announced that sanctions would continue on Burma for at least another year, by which time I assume the announced U.S. review of Burma policy will be complete. The question is what could possibly change.
On Monday I attended the National Democratic Institute’s annual luncheon that featured several awards given to prominent democrats (with a small D). Although much of the public was particularly interested in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s acceptance of the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award, I was struck by another award that was given to a much lesser known recipient. The Women’s League of Burma, represented by Thin Thin Aung, received the 2008 Madeleine K. Albright Award for its work promoting human rights and women’s political participation in Burma. It is activists such as these around the world that are the face of democracy to so many who know only oppression from authoritarian regimes. The military junta of Burma certainly fits that bill, as demonstrated in its complete disregard for its citizens’ livelihoods in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis that struck this past May. After rebuffing many offers of aid, just days after the hurricane hit, the military junta went ahead with a sham referendum on a new constitution that would cement its role in the future governance of the country.
Many are dismayed at the seemingly never ending stream of news reporting oppression and authoritarianism that comes out of Burma. Although there is much cause for concern, there are also glimmers of hope. The Women’s League of Burma is one of those points of light that demonstrates that the spirit of democracy is alive in Burma. Despite continuous attempts by the military junta to silence its critics, groups such as the Women’s League of Burma show us that even in the most oppressive environments, yearning for self determination can not be completely extinguished.
The Women’s League of Burma is training young Burmese women activists in the Thai border area who then risk their lives when they return to their country to document human rights abuses such as forced prostitution and human trafficking by the military junta and organize citizens to promote a greater role for women in Burmese society. (more…)
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.