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The Hindu Article Nov. 23
COSMETIC CHANGES IN MYANMAR
By V. Jayanth (Recently in Bangkok)
The Hindu, New Delhi, November 23, 1997 (Sunday)
FOR politicians and analysts in Bangkok, the decision by the military in
Yangon to change its name last weekend was sudden alright, but came as no
surprise. Foreign Office sources in the Thai capital say, "We knew
something was coming, it was still a sudden move. Obviously, it was
expedited by the blow delivered to Myanmar and the ASEAN (Association of
South East Asian Nations) by the European Union."
It was only on November 15 that the ruling State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC) was dissolved by the generals who created, in its place, a
new State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Only two days earlier did
the ASEAN and the EU finally decide to call of their routine dialogue at
the senior official level. This meeting was scheduled for November 17.
The ASEAN was deeply hurt by the EU's stubbornness in refusing to talk
with the generals from Myanmar, which was not a full member of the ASEAN.
But an EU spokesman in Bangkok explained, " This was no sudden decision.
We have been telling our ASEAN friends that we cannot deal with Myanmar so
long as it continues to suppress democracy and violate human rights.
We have limited sanctions against the junta, clamped by the European
Parliament, which binds all of us. Meeting them at the ARF in Kuala Lumpur
was a different issue, but engaging them in region-to-region bilateral and
extending EU economic cooperation program to them to them are totally
different. We can not do what even for friendship's sake.
Even at the February ASEN-EU Ministerial meeting hosted in Singapore, the
Myanmar issue became quite thorny. Apparently, the ASEAN expected the EU
to get over the hiccups once Myanmar formally joined the grouping in July
But that has only precipitated a new crisis in relationships. At least in
the short-term, Myanmar has become a liability for the ASEAN. It is likely
to face intense pressure from its Western friends, the U.S., the EU and
Canada, apart from players nearer home, Australia and New Zealand. So,
Yangon's decision to change the name of the SLORC could be seen in the
context - as trying to convey a message both to the domestic audience and
the international community - that joining the ASEAN made a difference.
[And,] That the junta was committed to gradually opening to the economy
and to political reforms, at its own pace.
the junta seized power in 1988, at the height of a countrywide agitation
and demonstrations by the pro-democracy movement. Four years later, after
crushing the democracy movement and purging schools and colleges of its
activists, the SLORC decided to set up a National Convention to draft a
new Constitution. Four more years have gone by and there is still no
confirmation that the Convention is anywhere near finalizing a new draft
constitution. Simultaneously, the junta launched a military offensive to
contain various armed, insurgent ethnic tribes and groups - which were
demanding autonomy and anyway controlling large tracts of mineral and
timber rich areas.
Now, the Foreign Minister, Mr. Ohn Gyaw, claims that all but one of the 16
national, ethnic groups have entered into an agreement with the Government
and given up their armed struggle.
They were represented on the National Convention. Only the Karens still
continues with their armed battle for power and independence, though they
have been contained to a large extent with the help of the Government and
armed forces of Thailand. These developments suggest that the SLORC could
have decided that it was time to start showing some visible changes. For
the embarrassment that Myanmar has brought to the ASEAN for making it a
member, it is time that the junta did something tangible to demonstrate
that the ASEAN's policy of "constructive engagement" indeed showing
Diplomats based in Yangon say the name change by the Prime Minister and
SLORC Chairman, Gen. Than Shwe, who has also become chairman of the new
SPDC, may have been a move to purge some of the troublesome elements in
the council, against whom many corruption charges were also leveled.
Significantly, the top three generals have retained their positions and a
fourth rising star has been brought in as Secretary III for the SPDC. As
many as 17 old members of the SLORC were purged. The regional commanders
of the 15 sectors have been inducted into the new council. All but half a
dozen ministers have been sent packing, again replaced by new faces from
the army's regional commands. The shunted SLORC members have been put on a
loop-line called an "Advisory group" of 14.
The junta wants to press ahead with the new Constitution that will put on
the statue a politico-social role for the armed forces, who will be given
at least a 20 per cent representation in Parliament.
Once that legitimized, the junta will formulate rules and regulations for
the registration of political parties to pave the way for its promised
"multi-party democratic system" under the new Constitution. But that is
now in the realm of planning comment.
It will take some time to understand the real meaning and implications of
this change and to know serious the generals are about ushering in
democracy. They have already given a clear indication of the kind of
democracy that people can expect - "disciplines democracy" is the word, a
Yangon variant of Southeast Asian's versions of "guided democracies."
One obvious question that arises is whether the National League for
Democracy and its leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, will be allowed to
participate in an election, whenever it is held. Officials in Bangkok say,
" they will try to get the NLD without Ms. Suu Kyi, if possible. But it is
too early to say how and when a dialogue will take pace between the two
sides". Every attempt will be made her from running for any public office.
Regional analysts such as Dr. Dewi Fortuna Anwar of Indonesia argue "Until
its international reputation is restored, which is dependent on its
domestic political performance, Myanmar may prove a liability for the
ASEAN, particularly in the association's dealings with Western countries."
Dr. Dewi, who heads the Center for political studies at the Indonesian
Institute of Sciences, says, "At a time when international attention is
focussing more and more on democratization, good governance and the
protection of human rights, the ASEAN's political image has been rather
dented by its immediate embrace of Myanmar. The ASEAN hopes to seduce
Myanmar to change its way and adopt a reconciliatory approach to its
She says it is now up to Yangon "to confound the skeptics and show that
not only its membership of the ASEAN will be beneficial to the region but
that it will usher in a new era of stability and prosperity within Myanmar
itself. Otherwise, ASEAN's hard-earned international standing may suffer
an irreparable damage from too close an association with that country."
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