Myanmar seeks end to sanctions with rapid reforms | Inquirer News

Myanmar seeks end to sanctions with rapid reforms

/ 04:54 PM January 14, 2012

Myanmar Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko addresses reporters during a press conference in the capital Naypyidaw on January 14, 2012. Myanmar has released more than 300 people deemed by the opposition to be political prisoners, Ko Ko said, after the West hailed the move as a substantial sign of reform. AFP PHOTO/HLA HLA HTAY

YANGON—Myanmar is striving for a quick end to Western sanctions with a dramatic series of reforms after decades of isolation, analysts say, and the strategy is beginning to bear fruit.

The regime says it released 302 inmates considered political prisoners by the opposition in its latest amnesty on Friday, including some top dissidents, leading the United States to announce the restoration of full diplomatic ties.


“It’s very significant that it’s like a blanket amnesty (with) no condition attached in the government’s announcement, unlike previous releases,” said Win Min, a US-based Myanmar analyst and pro-democracy activist.


“It seems that the government finally realized that without such releases, Western countries would not revoke sanctions.”

Thein Sein was appointed President of Myanmar in March after the retirement of the junta chief, Senior General Than Shwe. Since then, the scope of his apparently reformist moves has stunned outside observers.

He was initially described as a faithful and obedient soldier of the feared regime leader.

Previously prime minister, he has since become an ardent architect of ambitious reforms and accomplished what nobody dared to imagine a year ago.

“We started from Ground Zero. We couldn’t expect much,” said Aung Naing Oo, of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thai-based think-tank.

“I knew the changes were coming, I said again and again it would be excruciatingly slow but some of the changes are excruciatingly fast.”


In recent months, the government has resumed dialogue with ethnic rebel groups, on Thursday signing a ceasefire with a major armed ethnic Karen group involved in one of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts.

Thein Sein has also reached out to political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hated by Than Shwe and detained for much of the past two decades, Suu Kyi was released in late 2010 a few days after a widely criticized election boycotted by her party, which has since legally rejoined the political process.

She is now running for office in a parliamentary by-election in April that could lead to her entry to parliament in the capital Naypyidaw, where foreign dignitaries have begun to flock to try and understand what is going on.

Since early December, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have made landmark trips to the isolated country, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe following on Saturday.

Late last year Myanmar was also rewarded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which made it chair of the regional bloc in 2014.

“It seems that Thein Sein really has in mind to present the international community with a fait accompli, and very quickly,” said Renaud Egreteau, Myanmar specialist at the University of Hong Kong.

“For 20 years, Western governments have hammered home that they would revise their positions only when Aung San Suu Kyi was in the game, all political prisoners were released, and inter-ethnic dialogue resumed,” he told AFP.

“If these conditions exist on paper, the outside world will be forced to reconsider its approach, although the dominance of the army has not fundamentally changed.”

The main issue is the lifting of Western sanctions implemented by the United States and the European Union since the late 1990s.

While the measures have hindered impoverished Myanmar’s economic development, they have been offset to some extent by rising trade and investment from China and other Asian nations.

The latest amnesty has prompted Washington to make a move toward normalizing relations, saying Friday that it was willing to exchange ambassadors with Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Experts point out, however, that there are important, albeit subtle, power struggles between the military, former military members and civilians.

And exile organizations still express caution, such as Burma Campaign UK, which fears the released prisoners “are being treated as bargaining chips in a tit-for-tat process in getting sanctions lifted.”

Could a section of the army organize a coup? Is Than Shwe really retired, or is he still in the wings? Despite a number of unknowns, observers are greeting the changes with cautious optimism after decades of repression.

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“You can’t say exactly where things are going, but things are happening and it’s good,” said Aung Naing Oo.

TAGS: Diplomacy, Myanmar, Politics, reforms

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