Just as Myanmar is coming out of the cloud of international isolation and taking little steps towards restoring democracy, Sri Lanka appears to be heading in the opposite direction with the government making heavy weather of maintaining its international credibility after the setback in Geneva. While it will take a long time for Myanmar to re-enter history after 50 years in a historical cul-de-sac, it will not take five months for Sri Lanka to recede into a cul-de-sac ( end of the road, in french language ), if the government does not get its act together.
The writing on the global wall cannot be clearer, but whether the government can read anything at all is the question. The Burmese regime has read the writing and is changing direction. Rather than regime change, it has kicked difficult people upstairs and replaced them by more flexible successors. The question for the sibling regime in Sri Lanka is whether it is capable of making positional sacrifices for the greater good of the family even if not for the sake of the country.
But a positional sacrifice of an altogether different kind is apparently being pursued by regime busybodies, if we are to go by recent news reports on the diplomatic, or undiplomatic, future of Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s independent Ambassador in Paris, following his thoroughly defensible statement that Sri Lanka could learn from Myanmar, should take the UNHRC resolution seriously, and act wisely to get out of the trap of powerful countries.
Heroes and unhappy lands
Bertolt Brecht dramatized the exchange between Galileo’s pupil Sarti: "unhappy is the land which has no heroes", and the master: "unhappy is the land which needs heroes." Myanmar was in need of a hero and found one in Aung San Suu Kyi. Her heroism is not about taking arms to fight a homegrown junta but is about fighting fear, famously saying that it is fear that ultimately corrupts: it corrupts the powerful from giving up or sharing power and corrupts the powerless from standing up to power. We might add those in the middle – the appointed functionaries in the state apparatus, the judiciary, and universities, who acquiesce with power and submit to the powerful out of fear of losing their positions, perks and privileges.
Sri Lanka is in a double bind. Except for plenty of real and fake war heroes, Sri Lanka has no current or prospective political hero even though it is heading towards needing one. The lesson from Myanmar is to avoid falling into an abyss and needing to have a hero to get it out. The task is to learn how the Burmese government decided to begin making changes to its authoritarian rule at home and end its international isolation.
The Myanmar regime also played China and India against each other, as the two competed for control over energy resources, arms sales and commercial contracts in Myanmar by offering to shield the regime from outside human rights scrutiny. But the regime learnt the hard way that it cannot have permanent foreign support for internal oppression in an increasingly interdependent world. Keeping their international credibility proved to be far more important to both China and India than propping up the Myanmar regime. Since 2008, when it had to appease the world to ensure the success of Beijing Olympics, China has publicly upbraided Myanmar’s military junta.
It was the economy that finally broke the regime’s obstinacy. Mismanagement of the economy and international sanctions were having a crippling effect. The house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi placed the regime and its woeful human rights record constantly in global spotlight. From 1992, Myanmar’s human rights situation has been on the agenda of the then UN Commission on Human Rights every year, and since 2007 on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council. Each year’s resolution confirmed and reiterated the UN agency’s condemnation of Myanmar’s appalling human rights situation and suppression of democratic freedoms. Every year, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar was extended.
From late 2010, the regime began to relent. Starting with a new but controversial constitution and election the regime began to transform its overtly military structure to give itself a more civilian appearance. Two houses of parliament were created incorporating elected representatives but reserving to the military a quarter of the membership in each house. Although Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was barred from contesting the 2010 election, the regime initiated a series of reforms after the election. It began with the release of Ms. Aung San in November 2010, and was soon followed by the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, amnesty to political prisoners, allowing trade unions with the right to strike, relaxation of censorship and deregulation of currency practices.
Where is the comparison?
Global response to these changes has been far reaching. ASEAN has agreed to let Myanmar chair the Southeast Asian economic group in 2014. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started off a string of visits by foreign ministers to call on Aung San Suu Kyi as well as Myanmar President Thein Sein. Finally, the same 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council, that passed the resolution on Sri Lanka, passeda different resolution on Myanmar - welcoming for the first time the recent changes in the country, reminding the Government of Myanmar of the remaining tasks to be completed, and urging it to ensure that the by-elections of April 1, "are free, transparent and fair."
The April 1 by-elections were limited to 45 of the 440 seats in the Lower House, but Aung San’s Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was allowed to contest for the first time after its violated landslide victory in 1990. The NLD swept the by-elections winning 43 of the 44 seats it contested including a seat for Ms. Aung San. Although amounting to only 10% of the legislature, the April 1 victory is a historic victory that sets the stage for the general elections expected in 2015.
There has been no adverse reaction yet from the regime’s conservative hardliners and the reformists – President Thein Sein, Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann and the Army General Min Aung Hlaing, are reportedly encouraged by the changes and seem willing to continue the reform process. There is now the recognition of an emerging power triangle comprised of the President, the Speaker and the newly elected Aung San Suu Kyi and optimism that the three will work together. Even during the election campaign, Ms. Aung San struck a note of conciliation, publicly calling for an inclusive approach based on trust: "I was born into a Tatmadaw (military) family. I want to see a warmer relationship between the people and Tatmadaw based on trust."
The focus now shifts to the expected easing of economic sanctions on Myanmar. While what we are seeing now are only the tentative beginnings of democratization of Myanmar, it will be impossible to sustain the new initiatives without easing economic burdens on the people. Aung San Suu Kyi is supportive of the sanctions being eased gradually although she has no illusion of the challenges ahead both economically and politically. On the latter, when asked to rate Myanmar’s democracy on a scale of 1 to 10, SuuKyi replied that "We are trying to get to 1." In regard to the economic sanctions, the US has signaled its readiness to reciprocate by easing sanctions. A definite indication will come on April 23, at the meeting of the EU Council of Ministers the agenda for which includes a discussion on Myanmar sanctions.
To ask where the comparison is between Myanmar and Sri Lanka is to miss the point. The point is not about the situational comparison between the two countries but about the opposing directions in which the two governments are heading after the Geneva UNHRC resolutions in March. After twenty years of isolation and sanctions Myanmar has started its return journey. The question is should the Sri Lankan government go in the opposite direction and risk being on UNHRC agenda every year and risk as well being subject to economic sanctions?