Legislators at a meeting of the lower house in parliament in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on Monday. (Reuters)
Hong Kong, April 23: The first public confrontation between the democrats led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government began to play out today as newly- elected members of parliament refused to take the official oath of office.
The new lawmakers want to tweak the wording of the oath, but the nominally civilian government has refused to blink, which suggests that more conservative elements in the country could be putting the reformist tendencies of President Thein Sein in jeopardy.
The democrats, after having created the standoff, played down its severity today, saying they expect some sort of resolution soon.
But the issue might well give pause to Britain, the US and other “first responders” that have already begun relaxing their political and economic sanctions against the former Burma. Japan, for example, agreed last weekend to forgive $3.7 billion in overdue loans while holding out the possibility of new assistance.
Today, the EU suspended its sanctions against Myanmar for a year but will retain an embargo on arms sales, officials said.
The most nagging question now seems to be: Have foreign governments perhaps rushed to judgment on Myanmar, rolling back their sanctions too quickly? And this: Have the former generals and other hardliners who have burrowed into the government finally had enough of reforms, democracy and the star power of Aung San Suu Kyi?
Washington, in particular, could quickly halt the easing of its most punitive sanctions — after taking direction from Aung San Suu Kyi, of course. Some aid and development projects have already been greenlighted, but an ambassador has yet to be nominated, and the principal legislation covering sanctions against Myanmar is still in place, the JADE Act of 2008.
A good chunk of the Fortune 500 is poised for new explorations in oil, gas, timber, tourism, gems, banking, infrastructure. After decades of repression and isolation under a paranoid military regime, Myanmar needs everything. Companies from Shell to Suzuki have been nosing around for leases, concessions, office space and factories. Even the state oil company from Belarus — itself no darling of the West — has reportedly been hatching a deal.
Britain, in the person of Prime Minister David Cameron, was careful enough to suspend its sanctions rather than lift them altogether. Carrot and stick. Trust but verify.
Aung San Suu Kyi, standing on her porch in Yangon with Cameron, supported the suspension tactic, saying it would “make it quite clear to those who are against reform that should they try to obstruct the way of the reformers, then sanctions could come back. So this would strengthen the hand of the reformers”.
And this was working quite nicely — until today. The reformers were not going to win every fight they picked with the government, Myanmar analysts are quick to point out, but this was their first “official” confrontation. As a political set piece, so far anyway, it was not an encouraging start.
Anna Roberts, executive director of Burma Campaign UK, seemed to sense that reactionary elements inside the Myanmar government might yet spoil the party. Earlier this month she suggested that the EU establish specific benchmarks and timelines for sanctions to remain suspended. Reinstating the sanctions, she reasoned, would be difficult, given the EU’s often glacial decision-making process.