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Friday, 17 July 2009

17 July 2009

Remember Burma? Remember those protests nearly two years ago by thousands of saffron-robed Buddhst monks, protesting against a dictatorial military government?

Let me jog your memory, because I think Burma may soon be back in the news again, and I’d hate to think you weren’t ready for it. (As you may recall, I see it as part of my task in these newsletters to act as a sort of early warning system. Consider this your Burmese early warning.)

First, within the next few weeks, the opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi will learn whether her lengthy period of detention is to be extended yet again. (She has already spent 14 of the past 20 years either under house arrest or in prison, since before her party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory in the country’s last elections in 1990.)

The latest charge against her is that last May she broke the rules of her current detention order by allowing into her house an uninvited American guest, who had taken it upon himself to swim across a lake to her home.

The expectation is that she will be found guilty as charged (the judicial process is not exactly as independent as might be thought desirable). And if she is convicted, there is a chance of more street protests, because the woman referred to by the Burmese simply as “the Lady” remains a potent political force.

More importantly, if she is sent to prison, she will be unable by law to play any part in the elections scheduled for early next year, the first national elections since the ones her party won back in 1990. (Her supporters think this is the real reason she has been put on trial.)

But why should you care about Burma? Well, my answer is the same as it always is in these circumstances: look at a map. On one side China; on the other India. The world’s two most rapidly growing economies, two regional super-powers. They care what happens in Burma, and so should we.

China’s leaders are particularly concerned. What matters above all to them is stability at home and stability on their borders. They don’t want any sudden upheavals in Burma, any more than they do in North Korea. That’s why I shall be watching carefully to see what Beijing says and does in the run-up to the Burmese elections next year.

Not, of course, that the elections will be anything like free or fair. But if you heard the programme last night, you’ll have heard the former United Nations humanitarian affairs official Richard Horsey, who spent five years in Burma, suggest that the new generation of political leaders who are expected to emerge after the elections may be just a little bit more open to dialogue with the outside world than the current bunch of geriatric generals.

In an article in the current edition of The World Today, published by the foreign policy think tank Chatham House, he wrote that the West “must position itself now to seize the opportunities next year may bring to push the country in the more positive direction we all want to see.”

It could be that nothing will change after the elections. But it could also be that with a US president who believes in engaging even with rogue regimes, there will be a genuine opportunity for a new approach. And despite the undoubted bravery of those Buddhist monks, who risked being shot by the security forces, it could be that some subtle signals now from the outside world will stand more of a chance of effecting a shift in Burma itself.

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