The return of Aung San Suu Kyi, the dynamic Burmese political figure and international icon, from long-term house arrest to full activity has energized her entire country. The United States has accepted the Burmese government’s claim that it has released “hundreds” of political prisoners, though there are hundreds more still being held. How this will manifest itself in the near future is open to debate, but full diplomatic recognition is now in the works even though the U.S. never did fully close its embassy when it withdrew its ambassador in 1990.
Meanwhile, the crush of celebrity visitors to Yangbon (Rangoon) run the gamut from Hillary Clinton and George Soros to every precious stone dealer and extractive industry executive who can afford the trip. They are all, whether diplomat, politician or businessman, already behind the curve. Burma in all its not inconsiderable economic potential already has been well reconnoitered over the past decade and earlier. Soros, himself, for some years has been running an active behind-the-scenes operation through his multiple charitable foundations. George Soros has never missed a chance to take advantage of political/economic openings afforded by his conveniently targeted eleemosynary activities — and it’s doubtful he has changed his modus operandi when it comes to Burma.
With the aid of the global photo opportunity queen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Burma has become an example of the Obama Administration’s theatrical foreign policy that has discovered an international issue in the last year on which to focus the attention of its left-liberal base. The image of Hillary and Suu Kyi in matching local hair-dos as “bosom buddies” linked in the fight for freedom was of great use to the White House. The Obama Administration is eager to portray itself as the champion of high profile Asian democracy as it seeks to cover its waning involvement in the previously priority areas of the Middle East.
Washington officialdom is not the only foreign group seeking to take credit for Burma’s reform. Any changes that exist, however, are due strictly to internal developments, including the ascent of the new government under President (formerly General) Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi’s willingness to work with him. Andrew Seith, highly respected Australian analyst of Burmese affairs, has written, “…there is hardly a single sector of Burma’s government economy and civil society that is not begging for reform and desperate for financial, technical and other kinds of assistance.” Expectations by outside do-gooders have to be adjusted to deal with these many difficult realities.
The long-standing issues involving ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Shan have at last grown into full-scale negotiations. Unfortunately the Kachin insurgency has continued, some say quite unabated. Some of the ethnic tribal leaders question Aung San Suu Kyi’s judgment or even interest in these matters. Problems between the military and the various tribal groupings go all the way back to their treatment after World War II. Reform in relations with ethnic minorities in Burma, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is more the result of historical complaints than it is the product of perceived contemporary disadvantage.
Not talked about openly, but always on the mind of her supporters, is the upcoming parliamentary elections in April as the first step in what many consider Suu Kyi’s rightfully inherited position of the nation’s leader. Too fast a move beyond a parliamentary seat could trigger a serious military backlash, and she is well aware of that. The complexity of the country’s problems will require many years to solve. During that period it must be remembered that Burma holds a strategic position between China and India. External factors easily can become determinant depending on regional events.
Pragmatism on the part of Aung San Suu Kyi dictates she work with, and even perhaps for, President Thein Sein to achieve mutually desired goals of national reconciliation and reform. He can supply the discipline necessary to introduce a controlled but workable democracy, while she can continue to act as an inspiration for a future more open to democracy.
It will take both leaders to focus the many voices of the nation in such a manner as to construct a consensus of the electorate and a military that would no longer see itself as the sole arbiter of justice and fidelity to national interests. If Aung San Suu Kyi finds she can not work with Thein Sein, contrary to current appearances, this entire national reformation enterprise could still collapse. So far it appears that both principals are well aware of this and are working hard to preserve their initial collaboration. Meanwhile all of Burma holds its breath — and the rest of the world tries to figure out where they should line up. They should keep an eye on George Soros. He seems to make money from every situation.