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The world can do much more to help Burma change

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is cautious, but says we are seeing the first signs of change in Burma, but the government there still needs to do more for its people. He is correct in saying “It is in our…

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in November last year was a very significant step towards reform in Burma. EPA/Mizzima News

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is cautious, but says we are seeing the first signs of change in Burma, but the government there still needs to do more for its people. He is correct in saying “It is in our collective interests to work with those who want reform in Burma”, but by limiting Australian assistance to health and education reforms, he may be taking a narrower view than is needed at this time.

The United States and Japan are actively exploring how they might respond, recognising that this is the first time in more than two decades that positive political changes have actually been introduced in Burma.

Australia could be showing leadership through modest initiatives which could help embed reforms so that they are irreversible, and so that more Burmese people receive the international assistance they badly need.

Skin-deep reform?

It is hardly surprising that many long-time supporters of democratic change in Burma remain unconvinced that real change is under way. After all, many earlier hopes that change was in the offing have been disappointed. Various home-grown attempts at initiating reform have been suppressed, and calls to introduce accepted norms of democracy and openness were ignored.

Even now, Burma’s army continues to impose its own ruthless control over internal opponents while refusing to bring its soldiers under the rule of law or to stop their widespread human right abuses.

But some Burma experts, the country’s neighbours and even the Burmese people themselves are increasingly hopeful that tentative new openings may allow enough space for real change to develop. Even if it’s prudent to suspend final judgment about the extent and durability of changes now under way, the view is growing that the world can and should do much more in the meantime to encourage, shape, improve and sustain the reforms that have begun.

Political changes

Consider the changes that have already occurred, although they are not always acknowledged or their significance recognised.

The Burmese authorities are not only giving Aung San Suu Kyi her freedom, but allowing her to meet foreign visitors, journalists and Burmese supporters, to communicate with the outside world through video messages and the internet. Her National League for Democracy is allowed to continue to function – without being registered as a political party and to maintain its own website for the first time.

Other groups and individuals have also seized the “political space” that has started to grow inside Burma for the first time in decades, with censorship slowly being relaxed, political prisoners gradually being released, and some public debate occurring over important issues of public policy, such as major infrastructure development.

Critics often ignore other significant reforms such as the restoration of parliamentary government this year. For the first time in 25 years a larger role is being played by multiple political parties and elected representatives.

Indeed, activism in the parliament is coming mostly from the non-government members, who are posing questions of ministers, submitting policy proposals and requesting better government programs – all of which is being reported extensively in the official media.

Opportunities to amend legislation through the parliament are already arising, with the 2010 election law being amended to take account of National League for Democracy criticisms of it. The imprint of the new parliament is already being felt and is positively expediting and facilitating change.

Reconciliation and economic reform

Equally important, but frequently unmentioned, are the first tentative steps towards “national reconciliation” evidenced by the Burmese president’s unprecedented talks with Aung San Suu Kyi (in part in response to her request for such talks), and the authorities’ first-ever offer to the many Burmese in exile to return home to participate in the task of national building. Some high-profile Burmese activists have already accepted this offer, but this tends to be forgotten by those who still question the changes.

Also often unreported – and under-valued – are a number of economic reforms that have already been implemented (such as the lowering of export taxes and business restrictions). The International Monetary Fund delegation recently in Burma was able to have substantive discussions about long overdue changes in monetary policy. Significantly, debate has begun on long overdue policies to alleviate poverty, something that was previously not acknowledged as a problem. Responsible economic development is badly needed but may take time to achieve.

Some of these initiatives have emanated from the former Myanmar government but most have emerged from the present, partially elected, “civilianised” government. They reflect suggestions from the international community as well as from concerned Burmese, but with little or no direct input from the outside world, which either maintains sanctions or – in the case of Burma’s Asian neighbours – are reluctant or unable to “interfere” in Burma’s internal affairs.

So it is not surprising that in many ways, the reforms that have been introduced were insufficient in their first iteration or do not measure up the standards expected by the international community or by most Burmese.

Change not just from within

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is among diplomats engaging with the Burmese regime now. EPA/Enny Nuraheni/Pool

It would be wrong to assume that all change in Burma must come from within and that there is little the outside world can do to influence developments. Aung San Suu Kyi has indicated that international donors could support reforms and new policy directions.

While she acknowledged that some donors might have to overcome objections to channeling assistance through the Myanmar government, as Australia has had, she did not associate this with the lifting of formal sanctions,

Much room also exists for further reforms in Burma. Still lacking are reforms to the justice system to uphold the rule of law, to the land tenure system in order to protect private and commercial property rights, and to ensure that government services effectively support economic and employment opportunities for the people.

International assistance programs are needed to strengthen the operation of the parliament, to energise critical government-based education and health systems, and to help establish a sound and effective environmental protection framework.

The West must change policy

Most of these initiatives would mean reversing current western policies of refusing to assist such government-related functions. The international community could also do much more to assist Burma’s new government in its tasks of national building.

Nothing can be gained by the world and Burmese reformers standing on the sidelines waiting for ideal outcomes to emerge of their own accord. Proactive but constructive inputs from the international community can be especially helpful, especially in areas such as the rule of law, education and social development, and sound economic and agricultural policies.

The first thing the international community, including Australia, can do is to reassess any sanctions imposed against Burma – whether symbolic or real – with a view to relaxing or lifting those sanctions that are no longer relevant and that might be blocking, rather than promoting, reform.