Adrian Hamilton: A little democracy suits the Burmese regime

World View

Adrian Hamilton
Thursday 05 April 2012 19:53
Comments

Sanctions on Burma would be eased but not entirely lifted, said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday. Restrictions, she added, would continue "on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts".

Some hyperbole is forgivable, given the extent to which the elections that returned Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament have excited world attention. It's the reference to the "wrong side of historic reforms" that is troubling. The US, of course, has long believed in a course of history that leads to democracy, with America having a historic duty to promote it. Now European leaders are adopting the same rhetoric.

Time was when Western interests were as clear as the denunciation of their pursuit of commercial gain. Oil and commodities ruled policy, whatever the nature of the regime. Now – and it is one of the most striking developments of the past few years – the West seems to be giving up the struggle for resources to China. Instead, "democracy", "liberal values" and "gender equality" – the "soft power" beloved of foreign policy think-tanks – have become the flags under which the West would take "ownership" of foreign political developments.

Because that is what Western politicians are seeking, in their fundamentally patronising talk of easing sanctions here and keeping them there: a form of ownership.

Have sanctions really been the instruments by which the Burmese military leadership has been brought reluctantly to democracy? And can their partial retention now work as a carrot and stick to keep Burma on its "historic" course?

As symbols of Burma's growing isolation in the past 20 years, they've certainly been useful. But as actual instruments, there's no evidence they've had much effect at all.

The military dictatorship has decided to undertake reforms not because it has been driven to them but because it now sees it as in its interests to do so. Indeed, you could argue that the regime's willingness to allow a limited form of democracy comes from its confidence in power rather than the opposite.

Burma's leaders have, after a generation of warfare, largely got on top of the ethnic revolts on their borders. They've released the Karen leader and are starting peace talks with ethnic leaders. And they seem to have an agreement with the Thai government to keep it from meddling.

At the same time, difficult though it is to swallow, they appear to have kept a pretty tight hold on civil dissension since the "Saffron Revolution" led by Buddhist monks five years ago. They can afford to let in a bit of democracy at the margins if it helps to secure their political power and brings in greater international trade and investment.

Whether, having opened the door a fraction, they will find they can no longer keep it even half-closed is another question. The British ruling class managed it with the Reform Acts and social measures in the 19th century. Most of the Continental countries, including Russia, found that they had to reverse course quickly to avoid annihilation.

The West, when it comes to it, hasn't much influence on events either way. The fear is that, by partially easing sanctions, it may help the generals' hold. Released from travel bans, they will be invited to Washington and Europe – have already been invited, indeed – by a West eager to gain whatever economic benefits it can. Just as in the past, Western leaders will find it convenient to deal with top men who can "deliver" the advantages they seek and who can prevent the insecurity they fear.

The one hope remains with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, who understands absolutely the long game she needs to play if she is to achieve real political freedom. She won't be helped by Western politicians acclaiming Burma's small moves to limited elections as "historic reform".

What's good for Sarkozy may not be good for the eurozone

It's difficult to avoid, hard as one tries, a sneaking regard for President Sarkozy as he throws himself into the election with the promise that he will be thinking up fresh ideas right through the campaign until its end. "Otherwise why bother campaigning?" he argued at the weekend.

Why indeed? Responding to every new headline with a new policy is what British politicians, do all the time. But at elections they fear a daily diet of novelty might be seen as opportunistic.

No one could accuse Sarkozy of shirking opportunity. The problem with his politics, as with the economic manifesto he announced yesterday, is that it is just that: an agglomeration of gestures on tax and spend without any overall sense of how to get France back to work again.

So far the eurozone has been held together by the European Central Bank pumping money into medium-term finance for commercial banks. But it can't go on for ever. In the meantime, the markets are sliding back again. The cost of Spanish debt is up, and austerity is facing real opposition everywhere except Germany.

As Sarkozy talks of new rules on immigration, suspending open borders and instituting more protectionism, it is hard not to sense a European project that is foundering.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in