Like Iran, Burma muddies the waters for negotiations

It might surprise you to know that Southeast Asian political humor is on a par with America’s best like Maureen Dowd, Lee Camp and the Onion. For example, visit Thailand’s English-lanuage Not The Nation. Recent fare: “Kim Jong Il’s Pancreas Sent To Labor Camp” and “Thai FDA Approves Production of Flu Amulet.”

Shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested by Burma’s junta, the otherwise earnest Burmese exile magazine Irrawaddy published an imaginary letter she wrote to head of state General Than Shwe.

A few excerpts:

Dear Senior-General,

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you. … for your unflinching political support. I thought that the world had forgotten about me, but you made sure that my face reappeared on TV all over the world.

You had previously cautioned foreign governments not to focus so much on one person (me), but now you have magnanimously ensured that my name is on the lips of every diplomat in Rangoon.

The international community has a reputation for having a short attention span.

Thanks to your efforts, Burma is back on the front pages of the newspapers. I believe that the US and the EU were in a bit of a pickle about how to handle the economic sanctions issue and recognition of next year’s election.

Now, thanks to your clear-cut methods and no-nonsense approach, those countries will have no hesitation in making decisions with regard to the Burmese government’s status. …

Yours in captivity,

Aung San Suu Kyi
Insein Prison

Few outside Burma know the impassive Than Shwe and the 10 other generals who make up the junta. On the other hand, seldom has one woman been as identified with her country as Suu Kyi. In fact, her fate and that of the junta have become inextricably linked. The harder the junta tries to remove her from the scene, the more prominent she becomes in the eyes of the world.

Not only is this bad for the junta, but at Huffington Post, international reporter Virginia Moncrieff questioned whether Suu Kyi’s continued preeminence actually benefits Burma’s people. In a piece entitled The Future of Burma Cannot Be Tied to Aung San Suu Kyi, she writes:

That old chestnut question “name six people you would love to have to dinner” usually holds no surprises. The guest list from many liberal, forward-thinking (and may I also point out — male) types will include Aung San Suu Kyi. She is regarded as the epitome of elegance and sacrifice. The pinup girl for human rights causes. [Emphasis added.]

Okay, let’s get it out of the way — Suu Kyi has always been a fine figure of a woman. Here’s hoping her health doesn’t deteriorate in jail. We’ll allow Ms. Moncrieff to continue:

No matter how great her sacrifice, the future of one country cannot revolve around the actions and ideas of one person. … there are 48 million other Burmese people and they cannot continue to be held captive while the international community listens to, and complies with Daw [an honorific — RW] Suu’s policies of sanctions.

Daw Suu’s strategy [of] maintaining that the regime must be isolated and that Burma must be the target of stringent sanctions only helps the junta reverse further into mad “behind-the-wall” strategies. … Many pro-democracy activists. . . believe she is wrong about sanctions but such is her position, they often decline to say so publicly.

Australian Daniel Pedersen, who reports from Mae Sot, Thailand on the Burmese Karen ethnic insurgency, added a couple of comments to Ms. Moncrieff’s article:

In the West [Suu Kyi] is a figurehead. … [Meanwhile] in Burma she’s a hero to many in Rangoon [but] irrelevant to much of the country’s population. …There are thousands of villages. . . in which Suu Kyi could walk through the marketplace and not be recognised because the images the West sees aren’t encouraged inside Burma, to say the least.

A recent New York Times article confirms Pedersen’s observation:

“I only know her name,” said Ms. Ei Phyu, a slight and shy 20-year-old [worker in a textile plant]. “I’ve never seen a picture of her,” Ms. Ei Phyu said. “I think she’s an old lady.”

Meanwhile (from the same article):

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, is a shell of its former self, its leaders well into their 70s.

Still. . .

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has been dismissed as irrelevant before, only to rally Burmese in large numbers.

Returning to the parody-letter, perhaps the junta does know what it’s doing. It’s easy to write it off as heavy-handed. But keeping Suu Kyi front and center may be a nefarious plot to keep the eyes of the world on her. It thus becomes impossible for her to back down, were she inclined, without appearing to sell out her cause.

Also, with next year’s plans for elections and the convening of a parliament (aka, ways of legalizing the military’s role in Burma’s political system) the junta can look like the conciliatory party. Of course, there’s the small matter of the plunder it perpetrates on ethnic Burmans and the under-the-radar genocide it inflicts on the ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way to the forty-second Ministerial Meeting of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in Thailand. Much of the discussion will revolve around Burma, which the Obama administration, once it completes its policy review, seeks to engage.

But, of course, Suu Kyi’s incarceration and trial throw a monkey wrench into the works. What state does that remind us of? Of, yeah, Iran, which has muddied the waters for negotiations with the United States by a presidential election that appeared staged and then by repressing the subsequent protests.

Iran’s government, however, neither a dictatorship nor a junta, may still be a candidate for rapprochement with the United States. As for Burma, any responsibility that Suu Kyi bears for the West failing to engage with it is beyond negligible compared to the blame that falls on the junta.

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