Editorial – Bangkok Post
After many years of what seemed an intractable situation in Burma, the events of recent weeks have given some reason for hope, thanks mostly to the United State’s new policy of engagement with the isolated regime.
Yesterday it was reported that US President Barack Obama ”expects” the leaders of all Asean nations _including Burma _ to attend the Asean-US Enhanced Partnership meeting next Sunday, Nov 15, a meeting Mr Obama is also expected to attend. Speculation is rampant that there will be a face-to-face meeting between the US president and senior Burmese general(s), something that would have seemed the stuff of fiction not long ago.
This comes on the heels of a visit to Burma by two high-level US officials last week; US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Scot Marciel.
In what was called an ”exploratory mission”, the two met with Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein in the capital of Naypyidaw, and also leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi, who was allowed a brief respite from house arrest.
It is also hopeful that the US officials were able to meet with representatives of ethnic minority groups in Rangoon.
No one expects an easy or clear resolution to the troubles in Burma, they have fermented too long. One of the trickiest issues will be to determine how past grievances and human rights abuses can be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction. But that is far down the road and can be dealt with if and when the reconciliation ever comes to such a point.
More immediately there is the issue of the general election scheduled for some time in 2010. A semblance of transparency is an absolute necessity in order for most of the rest of the world to seriously pursue normalisation of relations with Burma.
In this regard there are some important parallels between Burma and Iran, a country which during the US presidential elections Barack Obama said he would conduct talks with. After winning the election he did begin a policy of engagement with Iran. It seems clear that this was the correct policy, as his predecessor George Bush’s policy of hostile non-engagement had done nothing to dissuade Iran from giving up its nuclear programme and caused unnecessary global tensions. The new policy did help to create a better atmosphere; a military conflict began to look less likely and a negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme was also looking more hopeful.
Rapprochement between the US and Iran was dealt a hard blow with the highly disputed election in June this year, however, with the widespread charges of electoral fraud in incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory. It became even more difficult when very harsh measures were used to break up the large protests in support of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, although Mr Obama has said he is still willing to engage in negotiations.
So again, the election in Burma is the key to the country’s future and its emergence from isolation. As things stand now the junta has given little assurance that the election process will be transparent, or that it will allow the participation of the NLD.
”I think an election without Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, it would be very hard to see that as credible,” said Mr Marciel on Thursday during a meeting with diplomats, academics and journalists at Chulalongkorn University.
He also said that the representatives from ethnic groups the officials met with ”expressed their concerns about [the] elections and how the government will treat them militarily”.
Clearly it is up to the leaders of the US and other concerned countries to use whatever leverage and powers of persuasion at their disposal to influence the election. An obvious possibility would be a promise to overturn sanctions in return for reasonably free and fair elections. The removal of sanctions by the US Congress is a long shot, but it has become more plausible after reports that Ms Suu Kyi has concluded they are adversely affecting the lives of ordinary Burmese.
Unfortunately, the possibility of free and fair elections still seems more of a long shot.