Oct 6, 2012

Singapore - Right moves to help Myanmar

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Asian governments are familiar with the "no reversal" reform message Myanmar President Thein Sein took to the United States last week, but his purpose in making the pitch was different and necessary.

It was to complete Myanmar's rehabilitation - this time by the Western bloc which froze the country out during the junta's hard-fisted rule and persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi. Asean governments never thought much of Western sanctions and methods of ostracism, which most felt were counterproductive. But while Asia has endorsed the democratising steps the elected government has been undertaking, it was known the American and European demarche would be the last to be set aside as assurances of durable political and economic changes were being sought.

The Myanmar leader showed how adroit he was in making his country's case during his US trip. His appearance before the United Nations General Assembly provided a worldwide platform for his message of reconciliation, and his choice of the Asia Society for a reaffirmation was well targeted. It was significant that he met US foreign policy patrician Henry Kissinger, besides Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton. In welcoming Thein Sein to the US, the Obama government has moved a step closer to unfreezing Myanmar by restoring commercial ties. He has next been invited to visit Brussels, where a move by the European Union is under way to restore trade relations.

Asean has long favoured developments that will bring social and political justice - jobs and investments to help build a functioning polity. An influx of Western multinationals that will follow will mean competition for Asian investors who have been there longer, but this is good for the economy. The signs are positive, down to a Cabinet reshuffle in which reform-minded officials replaced ministers known to be ambiguous about the programme of change. Indicative was the promotion to information minister of an official who was the link man between Suu Kyi and the generals when she was in detention.

The President even suggested, rather shrewdly, he would "accept" Suu Kyi as president if her party won parliamentary elections due in 2015. There are constitutional restraints as her foreign ties disqualify her from the highest office, but these are not insurmountable. This could be a throwaway remark by the President or it could be proof of a patriot's understanding that the way to full national healing is to respect the will of the people. Suu Kyi's future will resolve itself in time. She should for now place her considerable prestige in the service of her nation to help bring unity, progress and justice.

The Straits Times

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