Did SBY’s visit to Myanmar change anything?

Updated On: Mar 07, 2006

During Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY)’s visit to Myanmar, he urged the Myanmarese leaders to allow representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to assess the state of democratic progress in Myanmar.

On Wednesday (1 March 2006), after his talks with Myanmar Senior General Than Shwe, SBY said “Indonesiabelieves ASEAN needs to be given a complete explanation and provided with constant communication with its progress. Thus, ASEAN’s representative (from Malaysia) can meet and communicate all the important matters.” 

It does not seem that the Myanmar leadership had paid heed to SBY’s advice. Indonesia Presidential spokesman Dino Pati Djalal said that “General Than Shwe assured Myanmarthat he was committed to democracy but said that his country was facing ‘problems’ and ‘needed political stability’ before moving forward.”

This concern for political stability may not be unfounded, as there had been sporadic bombing incidents in the last few months. For instance, on Thursday (2 March 2006), two bombs exploded within 2 hours of each other in north of Yangon. The first was near a closed high school while the other exploded near an electric power transformer in town.

Myanmar’s porous borders with its neighbours, and continued clashes with its minorities were also highlighted in a recent Reuter report (3 March 2006). Bangladeshi troops reportedly obtained weapons such as two anti-tank missiles, heavy machine gun, three sub-machine guns, and 7,000 rounds of ammunition at a jungle hideout in Southwest Bangladesh allegedly smuggled from Myanmar. Over the past year, Bangladeshi troops have seized huge caches of weapons and explosives from the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, some of which could have been brought along by fleeing rebels from Myanmarwho are fighting the military junta.

Still, the junta does not seem to be trying hard to improve its international image. The military junta had refused to renew the visa of Leon de Riedmatten, an international mediator who has been heading the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue since August 2000. The Centre is headquartered in Genevaand is an independent foundation that works to reduce human suffering in conflict through mediation. De Riedmatten had been an informal local representative for the UN special envoy Razali Ismail (who has recently resigned out of frustration) as well as the International Labour Organisation. De Riedmatten had supposedly made more contact with Aung San Suu Kyi than any other foreigner in the last five years. De Riedmatten hoped that the closure would be temporary and warned that, “The situation is worse today than it was in 2000. There’s no reason to feel good about the future.”

Voices of concern over the current state of affairs in Myanmar have become more vocal within ASEAN itself. Singapore’s Minster for Foreign Affairs, George Yeo mentioned in the Singaporeparliament that Myanmar“might be a problem” for ASEAN.  However, he rejected the idea of expelling Myanmar from ASEAN, citing that the continual open “gates” to Myanmarby Chinaand India.

This open “gate” by Chinais evident in visit to Beijingand other Chinese cities by Myanmar Prime Minister General Soe Win in February 2006. Indian President Abdul Kalam will leave for Myanmarthis Wednesday (8 March 2006) for a three-day visit.

It will be interesting to see how ASEAN will continue its current strategy in trying to persuade Myanmarto continue on the road to democracy and keeping the ASEAN gates open to Myanmar. It might find its gate significantly smaller, compared to Indiaand China, and insufficient to entice Myanmarto an ASEAN vision of reform.


Bangladesh Busts Myanmar’s Camp, Reuters, 3 March 2006

MyanmarJails Child of Activist, The Star [Toronto], 4 March 2006

Don’t close Gates on Myanmar, The Straits Times, 3 March 2006

Indian President to visit MyanmarMauritius, Press Trust of India News Agency, 5 March 2006

SBY tells Junta to Open Up, The Jakarta Post, 3 March 2006

Allow Regional Monitors in, Yudhoyono tells Myanmar, Straits Times, 4 March 2006

Myanmar Junta Forces out International Mediator with Suu Kyi Ties, AFX- Asia, 3 March 2006