Immediately following the historic visit of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Burmese President Thein Sein signed a bill on December 2 that gives the Burmese the right to peaceful protest under specified circumstances.
Prior to the meeting with Mrs Clinton, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi told the Associated Press on November 30 that she has not changed her position supporting sanctions against her country's military-backed government.
After the visit Mrs Clinton, however, stated that apart from exchanging ambassadors, the US would relax some restrictions on international financial assistance and development programmes in Burma. This would allow the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to assess the needs of Burma.
Whether the Western sanctions imposed on the junta in the 1990s had any significant impact on Burma's political process beyond symbolism, is debatable. At the time when Burma needed hard foreign currency, the Western sanctions were offset by business with China, Singapore, Thailand and India.
If the sanctions were not effective, it is equally pompous to claim that the so-called "constructive engagement" without naming and shaming the junta as practiced by India, had any impact on Burma's democratic political process. India has been desperately mimicking China - a fact abhorred by the pro-democracy activists - even when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations became increasingly vocal for the release of Mrs Suu Kyi and the need for national reconciliation.
If Mrs Suu Kyi were to be under house arrest today, India would still be, quite deplorably, doing business as usual with the junta.
The junta's change of heart for democracy has more to do with Burma being reduced to another Chinese province, than the junta reeling under sanctions or a strong pro-democracy movement inside ethnically divided Burma. The junta's choreographed democracy must be analysed from a historical perspective.
One of the despicable measures taken by Gen Ne Win following the coup of 1962 was to seize the properties of Indian-origin Burmese who had been living in Burma for generations, by nationalising private property in 1964. Over 300,000 ethnic Indians were also expelled. Gen Ne Win feared domination by the Indian-origin Burmese in the administration and major business enterprises.
About 50 years later, Burma finds itself in the same situation, but now with the Chinese. In the last 20 years, millions of Chinese have moved into Burma from neighbouring Yunnan and other provinces. From Burmese timber and gems to mines, oil and gas, the Chinese control everything. Mandalay today looks more a city of China than Burma, with Chinese-owned hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and small businesses. The Chinese festivals have become an integral part of the city's cultural calendar. The huge investments made by China mainly benefit itself. The Myitsone Dam being built at the cost of US$3.6 billion in the Kachin State and suspended since September 30, was supposed to provide electricity to China for 50 years despite severe power shortage in Burma.
As the Burmese have been pushed to the margins, resentment against the Chinese has become all pervasive.
However, the junta cannot afford to expel the Chinese the way it expelled the Indians. It desperately needs to counter-balance China. Not surprisingly, while Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin visited Beijing on October 10 to explain the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam at the cost of a hefty cancellation fee of US$42.5 million, President Thein Sein launched his three-day state visit to India from October 12.
India alone cannot be the counter-balancing alternative to the Chinese domination built over 20 years of almost monopolistic access, given that it was only China that could protect the junta from the United Nations Security Council's radar. China's direct investment had risen to $15.5 billion in March 2011 from $12.3 billion at the end of 2010. In comparison, India's investment in Burma amounted to $189 million as of June 2011 since the junta opened to foreign investment in 1988. While China invested in every sector, India, out of US$189 million, has invested $137 million in the oil and gas sector. India currently ranks 13th in Burma's foreign investors' line-up. Bilateral trade between China and Burma in 2010 was about $4.4 billion and during the first quarter of 2011 it was $1.6 billion. In comparison, Burmese-Indian bilateral trade reached $1.071 billion in 2010-11, way behind China, Singapore and Thailand. While China plans to build railway lines up to Kyauk-Phyu port in the Arakan province by 2017, India has no plans to connect even Aizawl in Mizoram with a railway.
Therefore, the junta had no other option but to open up Burma to the world which boycotts it. This called for meaningful democratic reform, including the immediate release of at least 2,000 detained political prisoners and the holding of free and fair by-elections for the 48 seats in the coming months, in which Mrs Suu Kyi herself will contest.
At the bilateral talks held in capital Naypyidaw on December 6, Japan stated that it intends to resume full-fledged Overseas Development Aid to Burma if the government improves its democratisation and human rights situation. If the military-backed government frees all the political prisoners and allows free and fair by-elections in the coming months, the US and the European Union must consider lifting the sanctions as the key to glasnost in Burma.
Burma needs aid but it equally needs foreign investment. Sanctions might not have had any impact to oust the junta but the sanctions were instrumental in preventing Western investment into Burma that could have only strengthened the junta. The sanctions have created a situation where Burma has been effectively reduced into a Chinese province; and this also triggered the democratic reforms by the recalcitrant junta. It is one thing to impose sanctions; it is another thing to counter the entrenched position of China, especially when the spotlight is on the same natural gas resources, including proven recoverable reserves of 18.012 trillion cubic feet estimated offshore and onshore gas and 3.2 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil reserve.
It is essential to ensure a clear roadmap to democracy before Japan and the West join the rat race for exploitation of the natural resources of Burma. [End]