Britain plants stake in Myanmar's future

Hypocrisy peppers western government rhetoric when it comes to Myanmar, according to the author.

    Last week's visit by William Hague to Myanmar was the first by a British Foreign Secretary since 1955 [EPA]

    Chiang Mai, Thailand - British Foreign Secretary William Hague last week became the latest figure to play a nervy game of diplomacy with Myanmar's rulers. Although the demands on the government he set out prior to the trip were similar to those that accompanied US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit there two months ago, his two-day stay in the country is the latest indication that external perceptions of the pariah are being rapidly revised.

    The visit rounded off a week in which both the EU and billionaire financier George Soros made public their plans to open offices in Myanmar - the latter having long funded the country's pro-democracy movement - while the Financial Times announced on Friday that the "loaded" use of Burma on its pages compromised its neutrality, and would hereon refer to it as Myanmar

    At present, these are largely symbolic gestures, but they serve to blast wide open what to date has been a tentatively expanding passage from the west to Myanmar, and offer unquestionable succour to the new government. The upsurge in diplomatic manoeuvring since the new year dawned has alarmed even those who thought themselves prepared for the great reshaping of attitudes towards the country that began in March 2011.

    Hague's visit, the first British Foreign Secretary to land on Myanmar soil since Anthony Eden in 1955, was undertaken on Britain's terms, but offers perhaps the strongest indication that EU policy towards the country is soon to be overhauled, particularly so given that the UK had largely resisted the quick endorsement of the new government given by other members of the bloc, and was the main supporter of sanctions.

    EU policy

    While Hague has remained cautious in his feedback on the trip, his mere presence there points to a substantial drive to cement Britain and the EU as stakeholders in Myanmar's future. If member states can convince Britain that it is in its interests to befriend the regime, then the doors will swing wide open and the bloc can join the US in the race to dilute China's economic clout in the country, as recognition of Myanmar’s strategic value finds an audience in Europe.

    Officials will play down the opening of the EU office - they have hinted at the bloc playing a "political role" in the country, but claim the office is not a full-fledged mission. Rather it will help facilitate its aid operations already underway in the country, which were collectively ramped up last year when Britain announced it would channel £185m to the country over the coming four years, making it the world's single largest bilateral donor.

    Yet it comes only four months before the bloc's annual review of sanctions, when lobbyists will seek to convince policymakers that the time is ripe to drop punitive measures and kick-start trade. The EU's point man in Bangkok, David Lipmann, who will oversee the Rangoon office, told the Financial Times: "Of course we are talking about it [future of sanctions] - we're in the process of reviewing our policy at the moment. The situation in Myanmar has changed dramatically in the last 12 months."

    "President's... adviser said last week that Su Kyi's party could one day rule Myanmar, an optimism she herself shares."

    - Francis Wade

    The prospect of a rejuvenation of Britain's once healthy business interests in the old colony will have also steered Hague, a minister in the outwardly pro-market Conservative Party, towards Naypyidaw, which with the help of the IMF has enacted a number of economic reform measures to make the investment environment more attractive to foreign business. Myanma activist and academic Maung Zarni speaks of a "revolving door" between Britain's Foreign Office headquarters in London and the country’s business interests abroad, ironically with former British ambassador, Vicky Bowman, now a senior figure in mining company Rio Tinto's external relations department.

    Other British companies are hungrily waiting at the door: the Asia head of Standard Chartered PLC told reporters in Hong Kong recently that it would be "very happy to get back there [Myanmar]", adding that, "If I was a betting man, I would say in 2012 Burma will be off the sanctions list." That feeling is shared by the hundreds of multinational energy and finance companies who will profit extraordinarily from an open, as yet largely untapped, Myanmar: in the words of Ernest Bowers, Southeast Asia programme head at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, "Almost every major US company is working on a … Myanmar folder right now."

    The EU sanctions review in April will coincide with by-elections in Myanmar, in which Aung San Suu Kyi looks set to enter parliament for the first time. President Thein Sein's political adviser, Nay Zin Latt, said last week that her party could one day rule Myanmar, an optimism she herself shares.

    Foreign governments have long used Suu Kyi's situation to guide their policy towards the country, and her maiden entrance to official politics will aid those who see isolationism as both archaic, and an obstacle to accessing a key emerging market. Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy, thinks the US and EU "will be wanting to demonstrate a certain goodwill [towards the government] - a down payment on what reforms can ultimately deliver in terms of international engagement".

    Government's bold rhetoric

    But all this excitement over the reform, described as "near-pandemic optimism" by Human Rights Watch's Burma researcher, David Mathieson, obscures the hypocrisy that peppers the government's bold rhetoric. This in turn helps to mould, quite naively, outside opinion of the country.

    When Hillary visited in December last year, she demanded the government release all 1,500-plus political prisoners - a key prerequisite for relations to warm any further, the west says. That only 32 such prisoners were among the 6,300 released has done little to quieten the fanfare, and the overtures continue apace.

    This somewhat blind enthusiasm begs the question of what, if indeed any, concrete measures need to be enacted before Myanmar is seen to have "come in from the cold", as many are prematurely proclaiming. Will the EU really maintain sanctions beyond this year if political prisoners remain locked up?

    And if they are released, is there a guarantee that more won't be jailed once the current international frenzy over Myanmar moves on to new ground and the government returns to business as usual? Moreover, thinking that a quick end to protracted wars in Myanmar's ethnic regions is possible demonstrates a woeful misreading of the complexities of the conflicts, some of which have raged since Britain left the country 64 years ago - and which Hague's predecessors bear responsibility for.

    These are the concerns the EU should be addressing, except that they clash with its grand design for Myanmar, one that is being shaped by minds that have ignored the lasting impediments to real democracy and peace - notably that a military constitution that allows the army to take power at any time without consent still remains the bedrock of the country's political system, and one that Suu Kyi will struggle to overturn.

    Few outsiders seem to realise that the flurry of delegations over the past month has come at the very time when the pace of reform has slowed dramatically, as both the pathetic prisoner amnesty and an upsurge in fighting in the country's border regions show. As Suu Kyi said on Hague's departure last week, "hard work" needs to be done to turn the government's grandiose rhetoric into reality, but it is questionable whether European governments really have the know-how and inclination to carry this through. 

    Francis Wade is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, and has written this article in a personal capacity.

    Follow him on Twitter: @Francis_Wade

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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