'Irreversible' or Not, Reforms Have a Long Way to Go

By The Irrawaddy 18 May 2012

The Obama administration has announced that it will suspend US sanctions on Burma. This marks the most significant move by the US in its shift away from two decades of hostile relations with the one-time pariah.

Interestingly, in announcing the decision, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “This is a moment for us to recognize that the progress which has occurred in the last year toward democratization and national reconciliation is irreversible.” This contrasts starkly with a recent remark by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who said a few days ago: “You have to remember that the democratization process is not irreversible.”

While Clinton was meeting with visiting Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin in Washington, the situation in Burma seemed far from positive. The offensive against the Kachin Independence Army rages on, growing more intense by the day.

According to local reports, Mi-24 assault helicopters fired rockets on villages in areas controlled by the ethnic army earlier this week. Casualties continue to mount in the conflict, and up to 70,000 ethnic refugees are living in makeshift camps in Kachin State near the Sino-Burmese border.

Obviously, the picture on the ground in Burma is not as pretty as the one being painted in Washington.

Nobody wants to see Burma’s reputation permanently stained by the transgressions of the past. But to deny that the situation in many parts of the country remains as dire as ever is wishful thinking at best.

Be that as it may, the US has made a decision that is in line with a growing international consensus that favors treating Burma as if it were seriously committed to reversing the wrongs of the past, and hoping it will live up to those expectations.

The move will no doubt be applauded by US businessmen, who may have feared that they would be late getting on the investment bandwagon. In Burma, however, the reaction is more ambivalent. Most hope that ending Burma’s isolation will spur the government of President Thein Sein on to bolder action, but nobody has any illusions that the optimism in the West will automatically be matched by a rosier reality at home.

Whether or not Clinton is right about Burma’s reforms being irreversible, the fact is that they still have a very long way to go before they can be said to meet the country’s needs.