Burma/Myanmar: The End of an Era?

Excerpt: David Steinberg responds to recent reports about Burma/Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions. (2 min., 10 sec.)

HONG KONG, June 24, 2010 - As Burma/Myanmar is due to hold its first general election in more than two decades later this year, experts are calling for greater freedoms in the country.

Speaking at Asia Society's Hong Kong Center, distinguished professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service David Steinberg said, "One hopes that the new government will give a little more space. I don't talk about democracy but a little bit more pluralism in society as a first step. That's what I hope to see, but we will have to see how election turns out."

Still, questions have been raised about the credibility of the poll organized by a military junta which declined to recognize the victory of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party in the 1990 election. The NLD has since announced that it will boycott the upcoming election. "I think they had no choice," said Maureen Aung-Thwin, Director of the Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative at the Open Society Institute. "They are stuck between a rock and a hard place."

"Boycotting the election is not working," Steinberg noted. "There are a number of governments that feel the NLD made a mistake. If I were to guess, the US is not happy seeing the NLD back out. The US says the election is not free, fair and inclusive. Clearly the US won't give legitimacy to the election, even if it's peaceful and even if there areopposition forces—which I think there will be—elected."

On whether the election could really bring about transformation, Steinberg observed, "There may be some modest changes. I agree civil society is important. On humanitarian assistance, we need to do more. There are things we can do, butwhether the new government feels assured of negotiating with the US is anotherquestion."

According to Aung-Thwin, a sizeable number of organizations were already operating inside the country looking to improve lives.

"Civil society is alive and well inside Burma. It's hard to tell it is there as it has to be licensed. You can't be too successful or upfront otherwise you'll be co-opted, taken over or closed down. We fund alot at the border. Those groups have many linkages inside Burma, who provide services inside—especially the no-man's land—that people can't reach."

While Burma/Myanmar is the second largest country in Southeast Asia, it remains one of the poorest. "Burma's poverty is really the outcome of terrible decision-making policies that havebeen bad economically and bad in destroying the fundamental institutions thatyou really need to see economic development," said Sean Turnell, Associate Economics Professor at Macquarie University.

Despite the grinding poverty, Turnell observed the ruling elite was the sole beneficiary of the country's natural gas exports. "The regime itself earns a significant amount of money and so do people connected to the regime. The incentives ofmany people in the country are to maintain the regime. They earn money bygetting concessions against very strict economic environment."

He argued the difficulties in altering the status quo. "It's not only about an authoritarian regime but also the people connected to it, and that's a significant hurdle when it comes to talking about change. I would suggest we need to change the incentives of Burma so it is no longer comfortable for the regime to exist and carry on as it does."

With some politicians in the US calling for more sanctions to be imposed on top of existing ones, Steinberg pointed that Washington had recognized such punitive measures as being ineffective, and dismissed calls for more to be apportioned. "These sanctions are moral high ground issues. You feel better because you have demonstrated the regime is not treating its people properly. But this doesn't mean you accomplish anything except to just feel good. That's not the reason for sanctions. We want an outcome."

To ring in change in Burma/Myanmar, Steinberg predicted an enhanced role for ASEAN, of which Burma is a member nation. "ASEAN may have a greater role. It should think more of its role—ASEAN perhaps more than UN. I think ASEAN is a means by which we can docertain things behind the scenes."

Reported by Penny Tang, Asia Society Hong Kong Center