More milestones in Burma

Freed dissident Min Ko Naing is mobbed by supporters as he arrives home on 14 January 2012
Image caption Political prisoners like 88 Generation Students leader Min Ko Naing are now free

As the European Union suspends visa bans on leading politicians in Burma, South Asia specialist Marie Lall looks at recent dramatic changes in the country and what lies behind them.

Nowadays Burma is in the news almost daily and at the very least weekly.

There have been regular and significant milestones since 30 March 2011, the date on which military leaders formally handed power to the civilianised government led by President Thein Sein.

The eye-watering speed of change has surprised even the most optimistic country specialists and Western nations are now seriously discussing the lifting of sanctions.

The most recent and momentous event was the release of 651 prisoners on 13 January.

Those freed included almost all of the internationally known prisoners of conscience such as 88 Generation Students leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, as well as one of the leaders of the "saffron revolution" in 2007, monk Ashin Gambira.

The amnesty also included around 60 former military personnel who had been jailed in 2004 when Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, former prime minister and head of military intelligence, was convicted on charges of corruption.

The latter group were not necessarily viewed as political prisoners by western human rights organisations, however they were nevertheless jailed on political charges.

The prisoners were mostly freed unconditionally and the official statement read: "enabling them to participate in the political process [... and] nation building tasks".

There have been previous amnesties, one as recent as 4 January with 38,964 prisoners having their sentences reduced and 6,656 released.

However this time the government based itself on the National League for Democracy's (NLD) list of 604 prisoners and freed more than half of them.

Conflicts and by-elections

Another no less historic moment came with the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the government (represented by the Kayin State Level Peace-Making Group) and the Karen National Union (KNU) the day before on 12 January.

This has hopefully brought one of Asia's longest-standing conflicts to an end after 60 years of armed resistance. This agreement follows ceasefires with other ethnic groups - the Shan State Army, the Wa and Mongla in Shan State and the Chin National Front in Chin State.

While there is a long way to go between a ceasefire and a comprehensive peace agreement, this is the necessary first step to bring peace to the region and to the ravaged Burma-Thai border.

Unfortunately the conflict in Kachin state continues although the president has ordered a halt to the fighting. It can only be hoped that the recent meetings in Ruili on the Chinese side of the border will also lead to the much-awaited ceasefire.

On 29 December the Election Commission announced that by-elections would be held on 1 April to fill parliamentary seats left vacant by the appointment of ministers.

Last week, Aung San Suu Kyi announced her candidacy for the Kawhmu constituency in Rangoon.

The NLD is expected to take seats in parliament, taking part in the political process they had to date rejected.

Interviewed by the press, Speaker of the House Shwe Mann stated "If she [Suu Kyi] wins in the April by-election, we'll have to a chance to discuss and talk. I'll be waiting for her."

These are indeed momentous times for a country that even a year ago was still considered a pariah nation.

The latest developments come on the heels of increased freedom of the press, new labour laws allowing unions, a process of national reconciliation between the NLD and the government, and Burma being elected ASEAN chair for 2014.

'Third force'

Activist lobbies located in the West or on the border have increasingly been claiming that it was their isolationist policies and the sanctions regime that have brought about these changes.

But in fact it is in-country civil society organisations, both ethnic and Bamar [Burmese], which have worked tirelessly over the last five years to bring about the changes.

Image caption Aung San Suu Kyi signs the condolence book for Dr Nay Win Maung

The New Year started with sad news as Dr Nay Win Maung, a leading civil society activist and secretary general of Myanmar Egress, died of a heart attack.

Myanmar Egress, a Rangoon-based civil society group, has been at the forefront of pushing for reforms.

Those, like him, of what has been called the "third force", realised that it would be negotiations, not confrontation or revolution, which in the end would solidify Burma's reform process and bring about the changes we are witnessing.

Over five years they and other similar organisations started to educate and create change agents amongst the younger generations.

The greatest success of some civil society groups has been to convince the new president and his men that this reform process is indeed in their interests, tapping into the acknowledgment by the military that their direct rule could not continue indefinitely.

The opposition to the former regime remains deeply divided, but over Dr Nay Win Maung's death many came together - even Aung San Suu Kyi came to pay her respects.

Top-down reform

Today the debate is about lifting sanctions.

The current Burmese government has indeed kept its side of the bargain by engendering a solid reform process and releasing the prisoners of conscience as had been demanded both inside and outside the country.

Thein Sein wants sanctions - indicative of a pariah nation status - removed as acknowledgement of what he is doing and to strengthen his position vis-a-vis the old guard, in case the reform process triggers a backlash.

And unlike the former regime his coffers are empty - he needs trade, investment and technical assistance if he and his government are to survive.

Measures to date taken by the West - sending high-level diplomats, upgrading diplomatic ties - have built confidence but this is not enough.

If this reformist government is to survive sanctions do need to be lifted - the most important thing, however, is an immediate start of technical assistance.

It is time for Western governments to support the efforts of local organisations working inside Burma and to encourage the top-down reform process which the government itself has initiated in its own interests.

Marie Lall is Reader in Education Policy and South Asian Studies, Institute of Education, University of London

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