Photograph by Nelson Ching/Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View

Myanmar’s Good Deeds Are No Guarantee of Lasting Freedoms: View

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Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- It’s understandable that so many people are optimistic these days about Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Last year, the military-dominated nation held its first election in two decades, placing a civilian, Thein Sein, in the presidency. Democratic opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who boycotted the vote, will re-enter electoral politics, her party announced. The junta recently pardoned more than 6,300 prisoners, many of them political detainees. The state has begun liberalizing the economy and lifted some Internet and press censorship. And on Sept. 30, the government suspended construction of a Chinese-financed dam on the Irrawaddy River after protests by Burmese citizens over its likely social and environmental effects.

The regime has been swiftly rewarded for this apparent loosening of control. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to let Myanmar take over the group’s rotating chairmanship in 2014; Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak insists that the military rulers are “on the road to greater democratization and are also being more inclusive”; and, citing “flickers of progress,” U.S. President Barack Obama is sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar early next month.

Time for a reality check. The shiny new capital city of Naypyidaw is an Orwellian Oz, and the man behind the curtain is Senior General Than Shwe, who has been the top man in the junta since 1992 and remains so despite his official resignation as head of state in March.

Hardly a Democracy

The 2010 election was hardly democracy in action, with independent observers citing widespread intimidation and bribery by the government and its supporters, who emerged with more than 80 percent of the parliament’s seats. The U.S. and European Union condemned it as neither free nor fair. And in any case, the military appoints all top ministers and judges and controls the state budget. President Thein Sein is a former general himself, and giving up his military status for appearance’s sake should be seen as a prime example of civilian obeisance to the military regime.

According to the human-rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), there are at least 2,000 political prisoners still being held in the nation’s 42 prisons and 109 labor camps. The dam controversy, which is being seen by many as the Burmese bucking their longtime financial supporters in Beijing, was really a pragmatic move of domestic politics. (The government has for years been battling ethnic militias in the northern region where the dam was located and was probably spooked by civilian protests there.)

The regime’s supposed moves toward liberalization occurred just as the Obama administration was beginning to see its strategy of engagement with Myanmar -- in a complete reversal of the George W. Bush approach -- as a failure. According to a Congressional Research Service report, U.S. diplomats found their Burmese counterparts “relatively unresponsive in the high-level meetings, preferring to confine discussion to the exchange of formal statements that avoid or evade the issues raised by U.S. officials.” One State Department officer, Joseph Y. Yun, told Congress this year that “we are disappointed by the lack of any results from our repeated efforts at dialogue.”

If the Obama administration -- and its Western and Asian allies -- has new hopes for dialogue, they are welcome to give it a try. But there should be no concrete policy concessions. While the International Monetary Fund finds that the near-blanket sanctions imposed by the U.S. (as well as Canada and Australia) have not been a significant factor in Myanmar’s economic troubles, they are an important moral statement. (The same can be said about infusions of humanitarian aid during crises such as Cyclone Nargis in 2008.)

Economic Disaster Zone

Some argue that increased economic engagement could blunt Chinese influence in Myanmar and the region. That seems unlikely. The economy is a disaster -- commercial banks can lend for a period of no more than a year; mortgages are unheard of; farmers, who make up the majority of the population, are kept out of private credit markets -- and the country will long be dependent on the region’s dominant power. And if economic competition is needed, India is poised to provide it.

Looking ahead, the West should consider what to do should the regime’s talk of change prove a cover for the status quo. Perhaps the European Union might be moved to emulate the stricter U.S. sanctions approach. Officials in Washington could also consider some new steps: banning imports of products manufactured elsewhere using Burmese teak, say, or barring federal contracts to companies doing business in Myanmar.

We all hope that one of the world’s most repressive states is on the path to freedom. And Suu Kyi’s decision to re-enter the electoral fray gives a hint that she, at least, thinks the junta might be beginning to get serious. But nothing the Myanmar regime has done so far merits any major change to how it is treated on the global stage.

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