Thursday, February 26, 2009

Engaging with Democracy or Authoritarianism?

The Irrawaddy News

The voices supporting engagement with the Burmese regime have been louder in some of the recent media coverage of the political crisis in Burma.

This new attempt to untangle a 20-year-old political knot seems to have coincided with the seventh visit of UN’s Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari to Burma on January 31 to February 3.

If we could point to any positive progress from this visit, it would be that it was the first time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was able to meet the UN envoy together with her colleagues.

It is clear that the NLD are again urging the UN’s Good Offices to broker meaningful dialogue between the party and the regime. It is also clear that Gambari was aware that the NLD did not refer to the junta’s statement that “confrontation, utter devastation, economic sanctions and total isolation do not benefit the country or the people” in a manner that suggested the party concurred with the regime’s stance.

The NLD’s position was clarified in a Special Statement 2 issued on February 17, saying, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi informed authorities through U Aung Kyi, Minister for Relations, that she was ready to cooperate and issue a joint communiqué to prevent these problems [misunderstandings] from happening.”

The NLD emphasized its position in an interview with The Irrawaddy. Spokesman Nyan Win said reiterated the party’s stand on “unconditional dialogue,” as well as emphasizing the NLD’s desire for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to visit the country.

The NLD, for its part, is ready to discuss and issue a joint statement on the country’s political problems, including the issue of economic and other sanctions. It is evident which party is avoiding meaningful dialogue.

During Gambari’s visit, Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein demanded that economic sanctions and visa bans be lifted if the UN wants to see stability in Burma.

The regime is playing a game of diplomatic ping-pong with the NLD and the UN in order to create a situation too complicated to be solved.

The generals have used—and will use—this same strategy time and again because they are confident they can manage the country without giving an inch to the opposition in any future political arena in Burma.

Meanwhile, a new US administration is reviewing its overall policy on Burma. The US, of course, is the main backer of economic and visa sanctions on the Burmese generals and their cohorts.

But before declaring a new policy on Burma, the Obama administration should consider this: will the Burmese regime really share space with the NLD in the future affairs of Burma?

Soldiers who are trained only to defeat their enemy will never sit down and talk with them as long as there is a possibility of winning the battle. Today, the regime sits confident that it is going to win the battle in 2010.

In recent days, a handful of foreign scholars and diplomats have issued pessimistic and critical statements regarding Suu Kyi’s political party. The opinions that popped up in the media showed an overall support for promoting engagement with the regime, and even went so far as criticizing the NLD as some breed of black sheep that is somehow blocking the country’s development.

The comments would not be surprising if Burmese politics were just another business, beholden to its shareholders and with a natural appetite for profits. But it is more than that. Activists, students, monks, journalists, writers, poets and even housewives—the entire spectrum of the pro-democracy movement—have been sacrificing their lives since 1988 in the belief that only democracy can bring about peace, freedom and prosperity, and most importantly, a life with dignity that each human being deserves from his or her community.

I believe that only an open democratic society can bring about economic development in Burma. We Burmese are struggling not to usurp power for the party we support, but to establish a functioning political system in the country.

If the international community wants to see Burma as a country governed by the rule of law, then it must get behind the democracy movement. If they want to see Burma as a stable nation in a prosperous region, the paramount task is to pressure the repressive military regime to come to its senses—to realize that a democratic system will ultimately alleviate the socio-economic crisis in Burma and lead to social stability within the society.

The author is a Bangkok-based independent researcher, graduating MA in International Development Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

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