By Alexander Mohr
The recent developments in Burma are increasingly being followed by the international community.
On January 23 the European national foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss the latest events and developments in Burma, including the release recently of a significant number of political prisoners. As a result of the meeting, the European Union’s visa ban on Burma’s president, vice-presidents, cabinet members and parliamentary speakers was suspended.
“The Council welcomes the remarkable programme of political reform undertaken by the government and parliament in Burma, together with its commitment to economic and social development,” the Council said in a statement. “These changes are opening up important new prospects for developing the relationship between the European Union and Burma.”
Since 2011 the developments in Burma have been extraordinary. Some of the key political prisoners have been released from prison. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has been allowed to register for the next elections in April.
The reasons behind these apparently positive developments remain, for many, unclear. Some observers fear a return to authoritarian rule once the elections are held. Burma is still an authoritarian country and is far from any democratic legitimation. But if the current trend prevails, there is reason for hope that the people of Burma might have a brighter future.
Thailand is always in the middle of any discussion on how to deal with Burma as a member of Asean, and on the right way approach a country that is rich in natural resources and cultural heritage. Burma is indeed a country with huge economic potential.
Asean, as well as other major political bodies, is following the recent developments in Burma closely. The regional grouping hopes that through its recognition of the recent efforts, the regime in Burma will be encouraged to continue with its reform agenda.
In an extraordinary decision in November last year the Asean leaders noted the developments in Burma and rewarded the new leadership by electing Burma to become the Asean chair in 2014. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first visit to Burma and met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, also in November last year, and since then a number of foreign ministers have either visited Burma or now also want to meet the Burmese political leaders and the opposition icon, and also explore business opportunities.
These political developments are increasingly noticed in Europe. The European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels were so encouraged by the recent changes in Burma that they lifted the travel ban on senior officials of the Burmese regime. The hope is now that the military will relax its grip on the country’s political and economic system.
But the real winner in these extraordinary developments is Thailand. Thailand has often been criticised for its soft diplomatic approach to Burma over the years. But Thailand is now in pole position to take advantage of the new developments in Burma. With a strong economy and as one of the heavyweights in the Asean community, Thailand can be a centre for all kinds of parties who have interests in the development of Burma. Thailand is in an interesting position in this process and can play a major role in actively supporting the pro-democracy developments.
The meeting between Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Aung San Suu Kyi in December shows that Burma attaches a great deal of importance to the role of Thailand. The Burmese regime has never allowed the leaders of other countries to hold such a meeting before. The visit, extraordinary from a diplomatic point of view, showed two things. First, that Thailand is supporting the developments in Burma and can play an important role in the future of the country and be a partner in the transformation process. Secondly, that Thailand will play a crucial role in the future economic development of Burma and the region. Thailand is one of Burma’s most important trade partners and is in the leading position for making investments in Burma and acting as a hub for regional trade.
The European Union should not look into these developments in Burma as isolated cases, but should also take the effects at the regional level into account. Only then will the developments in Burma be seen as sustainable, both economically and politically.
Thailand should actively pursue a role as mediator and reliable partner in this process. It can only be a win-win situation for all sides.
Alexander Mohr is partner for international relations at the government relations firm Alber & Geiger in Brussels and was a lecturer in international relations at the Institute d’etudes Politiques de Paris.