Myitsone Dam: a new catalyst for reform in Burma?

opinion October 07, 2011 00:00

By The Nation

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The decision to halt construction on a Chinese-funded dam is a brave move by Burma but it is not enough to prove that real reforms are underway

It must have taken a good deal of courage for Burmese President Thein Sein to come out recently and stop the construction of the Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam in Kachin State. Like it or not, the decision was timely and hit all the right nerves for both Burma sceptics and supporters of the regime. Certainly it has raised the ire of the Chinese. If there has been anything at all positive in the past three months since the buzz began about “reform” in the pariah state, this is it. It is the most immediate and concrete sign of the Burmese government listening to any opinion other than its own.

This move will certainly win Thein Sein lots of support from local and international observers of Burma – something which he badly needs in order to fight against the hardliners within his own cabinet. Indeed, that might be what the Naypyidaw government wants people to think. Somehow, it might also want to see reform-minded lawmakers win the day.

But the international community has to remain cautious, even after this latest development. There have been many times in the past when the Burmese regime has cheated and betrayed its own people. To suggest that Burma has changed because of sudden political reforms and a new political system would be hard to believe, even for the most optimistic of observers. More action needs to be forthcoming, especially regarding the release of political prisoners, over 2,000 of whom still remain in custody.

Although nobody knows the exact number of political prisoners and how many “classifications” there are, it is clear that their freedom is another prerequisite before Burma can gain international support. Ongoing dialogue with the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, must continue and expand. At the moment, attempts are being made to undertake further ceasefire talks with the various armed minority groups in the border regions. There is an urgent need to bring these rebel groups to the negotiating table, but to do so, the Naypyidaw government must do more to appease these groups.

In this connection, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has already said he will visit Burma this month, but the date has not yet been set. He has said such things before, but he still has not visited Burma as the chair of Asean. It is thus imperative that he go there as soon as possible. But for him to go, he wants to see more positive signs from the regime beyond the current “road map”. Otherwise, there is a possibility he will pass on this decision and let the incoming chair, Cambodia, carry the process forward if possible.

There is a high level of unease among the Indonesian leaders about Burma’s overall attitude. Previous attempts, two years ago, between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Burmese strongman, General Than Shwe, to communicate directly, did not work out as planned.

Obviously, at the moment, Burma needs Asean more than ever before. For the first time – after more than 14 years of membership in the regional grouping – it has shown willingness to work with Asean and the international community to improve Burma’s image and promote reforms.

President Thein Sein realises now that there is a small window for him to assert himself locally and internationally. So, he must not miss the chance. If he succeeds, he will be the one who gets due recognition, as he is scheduled to meet all the leaders from Asean, the US, Russia, China, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea at the upcoming Bali summit. So, the stakes are very high for him as well as for Burma.