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Myanmar's Protests Trigger Reform Hopes

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
September 11, 2007

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A series of protests (CSMonitor) by Buddhist monks and students in Myanmar summoned memories of much larger anti-government demonstrations nearly twenty years ago. The country, which until recently was known as Burma, responded to 1988 protests by launching a bloody crackdown and suppressing budding pro-democracy movements. Shortly thereafter, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and her party’s victory in 1990 elections was never acknowledged.

Despite this history, democracy activists in Myanmar remain hopeful the latest disturbances, triggered by fuel price rises, could heighten international pressures (TIME) on Myanmar’s military regime. Reports indicate the rush of bad publicity (IHT) generated after the crackdown may have led to the release of a political prisoner. At the same time, however, officials moved to tighten restrictions (AP) on activists and blamed the unrest on Western support for democracy groups.

The timing of the protests is significant. The military junta recently wrapped up a fourteen-year constitutional convention, which the government cites as proof of its sincerity (Myanmar Times) in pursuing reforms. The Economist disputes this conclusion, however, saying the convention only further entrenched the regime’s rule.

Myanmar’s disturbances also revived concerns in Washington, which earlier this year led a push for UN Security Council pressure on Myanmar’s government. But Russia and China vetoed the proposed measures, saying the situation did not warrant Council action. Now it is unclear whether Bush will seek to revive Security Council pressures, though he did respond sharply (AP) to the government’s crackdown on protestors.

Myanmar has long been cited by human rights groups for severe abuses. A 2003 Council Task Force report deemed the country “one of the most tightly controlled dictatorships in the world.” The latest disturbances highlight a less-discussed problem—the plummeting of the country’s economy under a succession of military regimes since 1962. A UN index of human development standards in 2006 ranked Myanmar 130 of 177 countries.

Despite U.S. and EU sanctions, Myanmar’s junta has been bolstered by ties to India and China. Beijing and New Delhi compete for access to Myanmar’s giant offshore gas fields and natural resources such as timber and minerals. A recent report says China’s diplomatic support of Myanmar appears to have played a role in winning a gas contract for PetroChina.

Beyond energy, India also seeks strengthened ties with Myanmar’s regime on counterterrorism and defense as part of its “Look East” policy (WorldPress.org). Given these circumstances, a working paper (PDF) by the United States Institute of Peace says the United States and EU countries may find greater success if they work through Myanmar’s economic partners to apply additional pressure on political and human rights reforms.

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