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Burma: Are there signs of change?

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:10 UK time, Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The guilty verdict for the Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was perhaps the least surprising news story of the week.

The World TonightThe military junta running the country were expected to find her guilty of breaching the terms of her house arrest when an American man swam to her compound and stayed two days - he was sentenced to seven years for his part in the incident - and they duly did.

But is there more to it than that?

Western governments - including the UK and the rest of the EU - were quick to condemn the verdict and threatened to impose more sanctions on Burma. A move welcomed by human rights groups.

But did they act too hastily and not consider the verdict carefully enough before issuing their condemnatory statements? That is a question we discussed on The World Tonight.

A former British ambassador to Burma - or Myanmar as it is also known - Derek Tonkin, who is an advocate of constructive engagement with the government in Rangoon, told us that the verdict sent an interesting signal.

Aung San Suu KyiThe sentence of three years in prison was commuted to 18 months house arrest. Mr Tonkin also said he understood that the terms of Ms Suu Kyi's house arrest are a bit softer than they were.

Human rights organisations say Aung San Suu Kyi is a prisoner of conscience and should not be in detention at all, but given the nature of the regime what can be read into the sentence?

According to Derek Tonkin and some other observers, the relative leniency of the sentence is a signal to Burma's neighbours and particularly China, India and the countries of ASEAN - that the military government are listening to their calls for restraint.

According to these analysts, the verdict was carefully calibrated to prevent Ms Suu Kyi taking part in elections planned for next year while not appearing over harsh.

Other observers point out that the junta has a plan to restore constitutional order in Burma - a country wracked by rebellions by its various ethnic minorities since independence from Britain more than 60 years ago and ruled by the military since 1962.

A new constitution has been drawn up by a convention which Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted.

Under the plan, elections will be held next year and a new generation of leaders will come to the fore. The aim of the junta seems to be to entrench the military's role in politics, but sharing power with civilian politicians - though not the NLD.

The thinking is they can break out of the partial international isolation they are in and then start to rebuild the economy which has seen one of the wealthiest countries in south east Asia become one of the poorest - if not the poorest.

China has been criticised by Western governments and human rights groups for being too soft on Burma - and indeed following the verdict, the Chinese called for respect for Burmese sovereignty and blocked a British attempt to get the UN Security Council to condemn the junta.

But there are signs the Chinese are gently trying to push the junta towards sharing power with civilians. As this commentary by Wen Liao suggests China wants stability on its south eastern border.

But for this to succeed, the generals need civilian partners who have credibility with the outside world, so reports that the leader of the Burmese government in exile, Sein Win, has gone to ASEAN with a plan for constitutional change that would involve the military becomes very interesting.

There may be no immediate prospect of Aung San Suu Kyi being freed and allowed to have a political role, but it looks like there is a possibility that things may change in Burma - if only very slowly. We'll continue to follow the story.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm not convinced, it sounds suspiciously like the junta are aiming for a pakistani style system, where ultimate power always rests with the military, regardless of elected civillian officials.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think it is absolutely wrong for the UK state broadcaster to be commenting on what other governments are doing. This is a matter for our own government and independent media, not the BBC. The BBC should stop commentaries and speculation and sack those that do it.

    It should stick to reporting facts. Alistair Burnett should either lobby his MP if he has a point of view on this subject or get a job with a magazine or newspaper. The BBC should not publish is own opinions, especially when it is about foreign governments.

  • Comment number 3.

    The West, having large trade imbalances with China and having sold the middle class for cheap Chinese labor and goods, is in no position to say anything meaningful to China about support for the brutal criminal organization that rules Burma. After the typhoon of a couple of years ago, British and US ships loaded with supplies turned away and abandoned the people of Burma. Interesting how the media fails to mention the brutal crakdown of the Burmese people with the open killing of hundreds of citizens and monks. The rulers were taking all the aid and keeping it for themselves and supporters or selling it. The US and EU will have further sanctions; being said like it will make some difference. Foreign office types are always talking about engagement with brutal regimes. This means that some influencial businesses are making money in that country and we wouldn't want to disrupt that for some issue like human rights. The West has no higher moral ground. Corrupt governments bailing out unethical bankers at the expense of their citizens is hardly an example to be held up to other nations. The West will slither off with its tail between its legs making meaningless statements that they have no intention of acting on.

  • Comment number 4.

    2. At 3:49pm on 12 Aug 2009, KennethM wrote:
    The BBC should stop commentaries and speculation .
    It should stick to reporting facts.
    The BBC should not publish is own opinions

    LOL. Anyone know how to get beer ejecta off a computer monitor?

    When you are 'unique', there is what is... and there is what 'should' be.

    We'll continue to follow the story. Or try to shape it. Same diff.

  • Comment number 5.

    It is China and Russia who are always standing firmly in the way of UN Security Council Acts on Burma`s Junta. These 2 countries have illegal business activities all over Burma and they will never allow Burma to get democracy. Why does UN Chief Ban Ki-moon not challenge China in Security Council meetings? He should scold at Chinese ambassador for immoral and unethical standing with brutal junta of Burma. It is shocking to hear the comment of ambassador that international community must respect Burmese law. Where is law in Burma? It has disappeared in Burma since 1962 when Gen Ne Win stage military coup. Is Than Shwe equal to Law? China must have been talking about Than Shwe`s law. Mr Ban Ki-moon had been to Burma and he knew the fact that there is no rule and law in Burma. So why does Mr Ban not able to face China & Russia in Security Council? Does UN chief need to worship 5 permanent members of UNSC? Then UN is useless organisation. Mr Ban should have courage to stand up to the might of Russia and China. Mr Ban. You can become the champion of global villages if you got the courage to do so.

  • Comment number 6.

    The BBC likes to call other countries names it is bad manners because we never hear other countries calling Britian name or interfering in our business they just sit and watch and laugh I should think. I have noticed that the BBC does not comment on Israel and its human rights towards others. In fact it is so quite about it you would think it does not know or is run by those who object to any complaints. So until it treats all regimes the same it should keep quite I know Blair was into Burma and Africa to change look at what he did for this country.

  • Comment number 7.

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  • Comment number 8.

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  • Comment number 9.

    Mr. Burnett:

    I don't think that Burma has not change that much...

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 10.

    Why does the BBC refer to Burma, and not Myanmar; and to Rangoon instead of Yangon? The "new" names have been in use across the world since the late 1980s - why does the BBC persist with the old colonial names?

  • Comment number 11.

    Is there the possibility that Suu Kyi has played the junta on this one. It must have been obvious when the american swimmer turned up that if he was housed for more than a matter of minutes, this outcome, or something like it was likely. I doubt Suu Kyi ever expected to be allowed to participate in elections. So this looks like a good gameplay from her end. Her action can be defended as humanitarian and the junta had to react and the reaction would be an invite to enter the game to others on the sidelines. The majors countries have all come into the game. Job done.

  • Comment number 12.

    Yet again an American meddling in another country's affairs has messed up any possible chance of progress. John Yettaw seems to be a somewhat deranged American whose "vision" of an assassination led to Suu Kyi now facing extended house imprisonment. How many more deranged americans do we need? Yettaw should certainly not be feted as a hero on his return.

    On correspondent say "It sounds suspiciously like the junta are aiming for a pakistani style system, where ultimate power always rests with the military, regardless of elected civillian (sic)officials". What's with the phrase "aiming for"? - the military has ultimate power, and has done for years. I was in Myanmar recently: the people you see in luxury restaurants or driving top of the range cars are all either military, of their cronies; those you see surving on $ 1 per day or less are "the population". This is not going to change because of a visit by some sympathetic US senator.

  • Comment number 13.

    So she gets an extra 18months house arrest and the American walks free! She misses elections! It couldnt have played out better for the Junta if it had been planed??

  • Comment number 14.

    #2 KennethM

    Offering up points of view for discussion, in addition to simple reporting of facts, is precisely the role of our independent, publicly-funded national broadcaster. You neither agree nor disagree with the point of view presented but argue that it has no business being presented in the first place. That is your right, but I disagree with you.

    #10 ATNotts

    The BBC, in keeping with the policy of our government and many other western democracies choose not to recognise the name changes implemented by the military dictatorship in 1989. Do you believe we do the Irish a post-colonial discourtesy by using the name "Dublin" instead of "Ath Cliath"?

  • Comment number 15.

    We all know the regime is a brutal dictatorship but we also know that nothing we say or do is going to change this.
    The Chinese support the regime, therefore our government (and more importantly) the U.S. government are never going to challenge the Chinese over this, or for that matter, anything, ever again. We may get some strongly worded objections raised at the UN or in press conferences but there's more chance of me winning Miss World than there is of our governments upsetting the Chinese.

    The only thing we as individuals can do is to stop buying Chinese products and to campaign for other people to do the same, but even this will only have a minor (probably insignificant) impact unless it spreads world-wide.

    Then we've also got the issue of hypocrisy, how do we criticise the Chinese for supporting this regime when our governments support regimes such as the Saudi's that are themselves brutal dictatorships ?

    Ultimately the solution rests with the Burmese people, only when they have had enough of this and rise up to overthrow the regime will any real change take place but as the regime has all of the guns this is not going to be easy and would probably end up costing many thousands of civilian lives.

  • Comment number 16.


    No, Ireland, where english is the first language, call Dublin "Dublin". However is is discourteous to call Muenchen Munich, Koeln Cologne, and Milano Milan, Livorna Leghorn, etc etc. None are unpronounceable in to an english tongue.

    Using your yardstick we should still be calling Mumbai Bombay - but we don't.

    Actually, many European countries, including Germany, call "Burma" Myanmar.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.


    You cannily choose German examples, mindful I am sure that most English place names are the same (or very similar) in German, highlighting the lack or reciprocity between our two great nations. Saying that, how many Germans do you imagine are offended in the slightest?

    If we look at France or Italy however the situation is very different. Do you feel it is discourteous or are you yourself offended by the use of the names Londres, Londra, Ecosse, Scozia, Pays de Galles or Il Galles? If so I suggest you get out more.

  • Comment number 20.

    I dont believe Derek Tonkin was ever ambassador to Burma- Vietnam, Thailand and Laos- but not Burma.

  • Comment number 21.

    #14 Doogletastic

    You are wrong. Even in the BBC Editorial Guidelines which it is required to have under its statutory agreement it states: 'the BBC is forbidden from expressing an opinion on current affairs or matters of public policy other than broadcasting.'

    The comments above from Alistair Burnett clearly contain several opinions. For example, the phrase 'it looks like there is a possibility that things may change in Burma - if only very slowly' is an opinion.

    As far me agreeing or disagreeing with the Alistair Burnett’s comments I’m afraid I am not at all interested in his opinion. As long as we are given the facts then surely we can come form our own opinions and arrive at our own conclusions.

  • Comment number 22.

    #15 KennethM

    It is difficult to see how the BBC could maintain such a diverse and much-used (particularly by you) blog section without introducing the personal perspectives of the bloggers to deliver the necessary level of analysis. The example you cite is an informed estimate of outcome, not a judgmental criticism or statement of allegiance and I fail to see how it affects the BBC's impartiality in even the smallest way.

    I am wrong? That is nothing more than your opinion and I continue to disagree.

  • Comment number 23.

    Doogletastic #22. It is not a matter of opinion (excuse the pun). The facts speak for themselves. Either the Agreement/editorial guidelines should be re-written or the BBC should stick to them.

    There are no degrees between expressing an opinion and not being allowed to express an opinion.

  • Comment number 24.

    #23 KennethM

    You appear to have latched onto a short phrase within the editorial guidelines without pausing to consider the important differences between opinion and estimation.

    If you are roughly the length of a football pitch away from an object and knowing that a football pitch is about 100 yards in length, you might be inclined to guess that the distance between you and the object is 100 yards. Is that just a matter of opinion? No it is not, because the actual distance can be measured. It is an estimate.

    In forecasting the political future for Burma, Alistair Burnett provides an estimate whose accuracy can be measured over the coming years.

    That is quite different to purely expressing an opinion. An opinion is personal to its holder and incapable of substantiation for the present or at any future date. For example if Alistair Burnett had said "It looks like the Burmese government might realise that they have been wrong all along": that would have been an opinion.

  • Comment number 25.

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  • Comment number 26.

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  • Comment number 27.

    I have to say that like many others I'm not convinced at all; I bet that the junta are seeking to be a similar to the old Pakistan political system. They cleary want the military to have ultimate say, regardless of elected civillian officials. That's their current method of operations and there is no one standing in their way. Civilians have no power to change things without endangering their lives.

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    "This content doesn't seem to be working. Try again later."

    That's been what you've shown us all on the next blog entry for days. Given the quality of BBC journalism, that's been the consistent level of it for many years. Why should it be different now? Why would anyone expect it to be different later? BBC is what it is and its managers intend to keep it that way.

  • Comment number 30.

    I had to smile on reading that "estimating the distance of an object" is the same as expressing opinions on matters political. If only that were true.

    The fact is that BBC journalists spend an inordinate amount of time expressing opinion as "reporting events" when it is actually "estimating the distance of an object"! The fact that we never get to measure the actual distance of the object rather negates the exercise.

    A statement "that things will slowly change" is superfluous in the extreme, after all they will not stand still will they! What is more important to people watching South East Asia is that military juntas are not pleasant, ever. And so Burma represents a battle of wills between the USA and China perhaps? It is shame that citizens of Burma are pawns in this "bloody" game.


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