Despite the ongoing efforts of exiles and advocates, one could be forgiven for having assumed that the world had written off Burma. Despite the Rangoon regime's horrendous record on human rights and fundamental freedoms, few international players seem excited about wading into the Burma situation. Even the icon of the democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has failed to get adequate coverage in her tenth year of house arrest. A spate of international stories and statements fly about from time to time – most when Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize – but these accounts are quickly relegated to the old news bin. The world hardly seemed to notice when her house arrest was extended by a year in November 2005.
But an unprecedented flurry of statements made in December indicated that the international community might finally be building up steam in its effort – or resolve – to convince the ruling military junta to change course. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), breaking with its long-time policy of non-involvement in the internal affairs of member states, has suddenly woken up to urge the junta to 'expedite' the process of reforms, and called for the release of those under detention. Having long withstood criticism for ignoring Burma's internal abuses, ASEAN's statement is significant.
The momentum has picked up outside of the region as well, with both the US and EU having reinforced various trade sanctions and speaking out extensively against the junta in Rangoon (though recently the generals have shifted the formal capital into the jungles). Even the United Nations Security Council is now discussing Rangoon's actions – the UN's own human rights envoy for Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has been banned from the country for more than two years. But while clearly welcome, the international show of concern remains little more than preliminary steps: the people of Burma need action.
The flurry of international action has also re-invigorated India's policy approach to Rangoon. While the early days of Burma's pro-democracy movement saw India's support for exile student groups, New Delhi has lately seemed uncertain as to which path to take – while still hoping for a 'working relationship' with the junta. In October 2004, India welcomed Burma's military ruler, Than Shwe, just a week after he had sacked Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, regarded a liberal intent on democratic reforms.
Indian analysts, citing reasons for the policy-change, point to China's economic and political involvement in Burma, the insurgency in the Indian Northeast, and the lack of progress by Burmese opposition groups. New Delhi, they say, was trying to be more pragmatic in its neighbourhood dealings – by working with the regime, some felt it may be more possible to influence policies. With India accounting for USD 325 million of Burmese exports (the second-largest market, after Thailand), let no one forget that New Delhi benefits from economic ties with an abhorrent regime. The two countries have plans to increase bilateral trade to USD 1 billion by the end of the year.
But in mid-December, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared New Delhi's hope that Suu Kyi be released immediately. Shortly thereafter, the first-ever Forum for Democracy in Burma was set up by members of the Indian Parliament. In the face of increased ASEAN and UN insistence on Burmese democratisation, a lingering emphasis by the world's largest democracy on establishing a 'working relationship' with an oppressive military dictatorship could have seemed extremely self-serving. It is a fact that for years Rangoon has been able to set its own course due to mixed messages from New Delhi, in addition to Malaysia's support for the generals, the European Union's inability to uphold sanctions, and ASEAN's long silence.
While the junta may have thus far succeeded in sustaining itself by exploiting the country's vast resources, even this regime would be hard-pressed to intentionally place itself on the international blacklist. Situated in a resource-rich and geopolitically significant location, Burma has the potential for great economic strength; as India, China and Thailand continue to integrate economically, that opportunity must be made available to the Burmese people.
In Burma, of course, it is always difficult to differentiate between a true step forward and a calculated move to merely quell international criticism. The junta has ruled Burma for more than 60 years now – silencing opposition, and destroying the economy and social infrastructure. In 2003, the regime proposed a seven-point road map towards democracy, and called a National Convention to decide on guidelines for a new Constitution – both without timetable. In mid-2005, Burma hoped to gain international recognition with its turn as the ASEAN chairman; but after warnings by the US and EU, internal pressure in the bloc led to Burma's renunciation of that position. But however minimal, external pressure on the regime does appear to have an impact on its activities. Now those involved have to figure out how to increase and sustain that pressure until democracy returns to Burma.
For her part, Suu Kyi has spent ten-and-a-half years under house arrest – from 1989 to 1995, 2000 to 2002, and from 2003 to the present. Having not been seen in public for almost three years, however, she has again become the lynchpin in the international community's attempts to sway the generals. In late-December, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar announced that he wanted to meet Suu Kyi during a critical ASEAN mission to Burma, slated for early January. If the meeting is allowed, it would be the first time that such a face-to-face meeting has taken place in years.
Just as important, perhaps, is the mission itself. With a clear objective of analysing how reform efforts are coming along, it will be the first time that ASEAN is proactive in the 'internal affairs' of a member. The mission could be good for more than just Burma. Former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim stated recently that by moving beyond the policy, ASEAN has taken an important step towards becoming a major international force. He criticised the non-interference policy for having disallowed intervention on Southeast Asian issues before, such as in East Timor and Cambodia. While other international bodies played key roles in those situations, ASEAN itself was not a major player. The extension of Suu Kyi's house arrest in November 2005 demonstrated the junta's continued belief – or hope – in the short-term memory of the international community. With the current momentum and their newfound muscle, ASEAN members now have the opportunity to prove that assumption wrong.
From within Southasia, it is important that all members of SAARC which regard themselves as democracies stand up to principle and work for a swift release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the advance of democracy in Burma. India, as the regional power also engaging actively with Burma, has a duty commensurate with its status to stand behind the people of Burma and not the junta.