The low bar

24 Nov

Its been a busy few weeks for Burma:

  • ASEAN, the Southeast Asian political and economic community, granted Burma the 2014 Chair to the group. This is widely seen as a vindication of Burmese gov’t by neighbors who have long been embarrassed by the military dictatorship.
  • Nobel Laureate & opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she would re-enter the political sphere by running in upcoming by-elections for a seat in Burma’s parliament. Her party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the 2010 elections on the grounds that the constitution and elections were are farce (they were). Her decision to reenter politics has been taken by many, including other political and ethnic groups in Burma, to be a consent for engagement with the regime under the rules it set up in its 2008 constitution. As a result, other groups are considering political registration.
  • Barrack Obama announced that Hilary would be making a visit to Naypyidaw in December, the first time a SOS has visited Burma in 50 years. Obama also had a conversation with Daw Suu. This is a lot of interaction between the US and an international pariah.
  • Over the November 18-20 weekend, four (maybe 3, maybe 5?…News reports are not so reliable in these parts) ethnic armed groups held peace-talks with the regime. This was the first time the Burmese govt sat down with multiple ethnic groups, instead of following their usual policy of divide and rule. One of these groups, the Karen National Union, has been fighting the world’s longest civil war against the Burmese govt (60+years).

Its easy to see why  the international community is getting so darned excited. Things are looking up! Except, maybe not so much.

The problem with setting a low bar, which we do when we consider brutal-isolated-totalitarian states like Burma, the DRC, Zimbabwe, N. Korea (or the 30 or so other states that fit-in in terms of HDI, Gini, Freedoms, and general shitiness) is that by doing so we can be fooled into mistaking small changes for trends and big changes for revolutions.

Unfortunately, for anyone unlucky enough to be living in Burma, all is not well:

  • The Burmese military continues to use landmines (one of only four countries), rape, torture, forced labor, land confiscation, and general dickishness as weapons of war.
  • The new constitutional government is controlled by old military leaders. The difference is that they now wear weird white hats.
  • Even if the NLD/Daw Suu join the parliament…they will be entirely hamstrung by a constitution that gives the military 25% control (enough to veto any constitutional changes) and a virtual blank check funded by natural resource extraction
  • There are still approx 2,000 political prisoners.
  • The economy is crippled from decades of mismanagement, with natural resource wealth squandered and a dual exchange rate system that makes accounting opaque and thereby facilitates corruption.

Its possible that the Burma’s General-President Thein Sein is earnest in his reforms. And, engagement by the international community could definitely be provoke further reform. The point is, Burma’s not out of the woods and won’t be any time soon. So we need to stop acting like it is.


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