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Facing the Burma/Myanmar Crisis

Buddhist monks make their way through the streets to collect offerings in Yangon on May 8, 2009, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. (Hla Hla Htay/AFP/Getty Images)
by Stephanie Valera
16 June 2009

NEW YORK, June 16, 2009 — "The next year will be a very eventful year in Burma," according to Priscilla Clapp, former Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Burma/Myanmar.

"I would have a difficult time telling you [exactly] what I think is going to happen," she said. "They have said there will be elections in 2010, and they have written a new constitution, [which] is designed to keep the military in control."

Clapp spoke at a panel discussion about Burma/Myanmar following the awards ceremony for the 2009 Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia.

This year's "Oz Prize" went to a team of writers from the International Herald Tribune for their courageous reporting of Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath in Burma/Myanmar.

Two of the IHT's four correspondents—South Korea correspondent Choe Sang-Hun and Hong Kong correspondent Mark McDonald—accepted the award on behalf of the team, who worked undercover to report the stories and without bylines.

"The situation in Burma continues to be a high priority for the Asia Society," said Vishakha Desai, President and CEO of Asia Society. "As the next step we are launching the ‘Asia Society Task Force on U.S. Policy toward Burma/Myanmar.'"

The panel discussion, moderated by Henrietta Holsman Fore, chairman of the board and CEO of Holsman International, included Priscilla Clapp, U Nayaka, a Burmese monk, and prize winner Mark McDonald.

The conversation focused on what the upcoming 2010 elections might mean. McDonald said many Burmese were hoping things would loosen up: "Even the smallest steps in Burma are hopeful."

Clapp said change in Burma/Myanmar will likely be driven by the people, from the inside out, not by the international community. The best prospects for change are reform on the local level as a result of the new constitution. "The [Burmese] will be given a hand in governance they have not been given before," she said.

Finally, the panel addressed the role of the international community. They predicted "we are going to see dramatically increasing US activity on the humanitarian level, in spite of economic sanctions."

They also suggested ASEAN and Thailand might play a greater role in Myanmar's political reform, whereas China has a vested interest in the Yangon's resources and seems to "like things the way they are."

Reported by Jennifer Mattson, Managing Editor, Asia Society Online