jueves, 8 de abril de 2010

A democratic transition for Myanmar by Piero Fassino*

By the end of 2010 – probably in October – Myanmar citizens will return to the polls for the first time since 1990, when the military took over power putting an end to the short-lived democratic experience in 1988-90, which had been marked by the great election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. Obviously, the military Junta has called the general election in a bid to seek legitimization at a very critical time: the country’s economy is fragile, very far from the high growth rates featured by the other countries in the area; poverty is widespread; human and civil rights are constantly violated, as denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur Quintana; there is repression of the political opposition, testified by the 2000 political prisoners – many of whom have been sentenced to harsh prison terms for decades – and the house arrest for the last 15 years of Aung San Suu Kyi. This raises a legitimate question: can an election actually mean anything in such a context? Especially now that the recently approved election law makes a mockery of internationally recognized standards of democracy. It is hardly a surprise then that the National League for Democracy, the party to which Aung San Suu Kyi belongs and which had won the elections back in 1990, has announced that it will boycott the polls. So the true question is, which is the most useful strategy to break the isolation in which the country finds itself, support the demise of the military regime, and pave the way for a democratic transition in Myanmar? The answer cannot ignore the fact that, to date, the sanctions applied have been next to useless. Firstly because a globalized economy and open markets make it very hard indeed to control trade and investments, but above all because the sanctions have been imposed only by the Western countries, while the Asian countries – especially India and China – have continued to invest in the country, attracted by its enormous oil and gas reserves, and currently account for 80% of its foreign trade. In brief, the sanctions have a high political and moral value but are of little or no consequence. Not least because international isolation is hardly a concern for a regime that has used isolation precisely to consolidate its grip on power. All these considerations are leading the international community to examine the possibility of exploiting these polls, which will in any case be held, as an opportunity to inaugurate a new phase, instead of disregarding them altogether. In other words, the upcoming election can be viewed not as a point of arrival, but as a possible “springboard” for change – along the example of Indonesia – as the first step in a process for gradually handing over power back to a civilian government, to continue the democratic transition. Of course, there is no certainty at present that this will actually take place. However, this is the only way the United States, the European Union and the other Western countries can find common ground on the Myanmar issue with the large Asian players – China, India and Japan first and foremost – and the ASEAN member countries, especially Indonesia. It is in view of such a strategy that the United States and the European Union, after long and painful reflection, have taken the decision to open a new phase of direct contacts with the Myanmar authorities – albeit without removing the sanctions – aimed at fostering positive developments and, in particular, achieving three objectives: a credible election process, recognized by the international community; the inception of dialogue between the Junta, the opposition parties and the ethnic minorities; and, last but not least, the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi and of all the political prisoners. As part of this strategy, the Assistant Secretary of State of the United States, Kurt Campbell, has already visited the country twice and is about to do so a third time, and the European Union has decided to send a high-level mission to Myanmar in the forthcoming weeks; for the same reason the UN and its Security Council have renewed their focus on the issue, and the United States and the European Union are intensifying cooperation with the Asian countries and ASEAN. The forthcoming months will show whether this strategy has any real chance of success. In any case, the international community is duty-bound not to give up and to grasp any opportunity to try and offer Myanmar a new and different future.

* EU Special Envoy for Burma/Myanmar