NEW YORK // World powers debated Myanmar's new election laws for the first time last week, but prospects of unified international pressure towards democratic reforms remained bleak as some countries clashed over their response to the military-run regime.
After a meeting on Thursday between the Group of Friends of Myanmar, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, reiterated concerns over this year's elections and called for polling to be "inclusive, participatory and transparent". But key players in the 15-member group disagreed. Britain blasted the election rules for falling "well short" of expectations while China lauded the military elite for taking a "very important step in the process of national reconciliation".
Myanmar's generals unveiled laws governing the country's first elections in 20 years this month, outlining rules for registering political parties and barring anyone serving a prison sentence from membership of an official party. Critics say the rules deliberately disqualify the detained democracy figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the country's other 2,100 political prisoners, including student leaders who joined Buddhist monks in mass protests in 2007.
Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the country's last election, in May 1990 but was barred from forming a civilian government, has yet to decide whether to accept the rules and field candidates. The 64-year-old Nobel laureate, serving 18 months under house arrest at her lakeside home in the former capital, Yangon, called on the NLD last week to boycott the elections, which are expected to take place towards the end of the year.
Western campaigners have repeatedly criticised junta generals for blocking democratic reforms, forcing villagers into labour gangs and lining their pockets with profits from Myanmar's plentiful supplies of timber, jade and gems. Speaking outside the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Britain's ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said the election laws "fall well short of what the international community expected".
He referred to previous council demands that stressed the importance of releasing all political prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi, establishing a national dialogue and creating the right conditions for reconciliation. "We believe these laws set out a process which is not conducive to free and fair elections later this year and in many ways seem designed to target Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD opposition party and to make it very difficult for them to register for the elections," Mr Grant said.
But Li Baodong, the UN envoy from China, which maintains strong economic ties with its neighbour and has absorbed refugee overspills from civil conflicts, stressed Myanmar's sovereignty and framed general elections as a domestic issue. "It is very important for the international community and the Security Council to help Myanmar promote a constructive, healthy environment conducive to the coming general election," the recently appointed envoy told reporters.
Experts warn that the western approach of criticising Myanmar has done little to undermine the elderly generals running the country. They maintain a tight grip over a tropical nation of 48 million from their purpose-built capital, Naypyidaw. Wesley Clark, a former US general and co-author of a forthcoming report, Current Realities and Future Possibilities in Burma: Options for US Policy, said that "decades of pursuing policies of isolation and sanctions by the US have done little to influence change" in Myanmar and called for rethinking the policy. Burma is the former name of Myanmar.
Henrietta Fore, another co-author of the report, urged the Obama administration to "press military leaders to improve governance and assist the country's non-Burman nationalities in pursuing an equitable voice in national governance" during Myanmar's period of electoral transition. Analysts point to the greater influence of regional players, including China, Japan and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), who have been reluctant to chastise their neighbour.
Some suggest Singapore and Indonesia are losing patience with the junta's slow reform process and say Asean's increasingly critical members could make their voices heard at the bloc's two-day summit in Hanoi beginning on April 9. Suzanne DiMaggio, an expert from the New York-based Asia Society, said even China is "faced with a dilemma" over its predominantly Buddhist neighbour, where minority ethnic groups have waged armed aggression against the central government.
"More than anything, China wants stability in Burma because there is concern about the flare-ups along the border, the ethnic unrest and what impact this could have on China," she said. "They have a choice to make over the best route to stability in Burma. Is it the status quo, the ruling generals maintaining a tight grip over these groups and the people of Burma, or is it slow transition towards a more democratic system?"
Myanmar watchers look beyond this year's election and hope for political reforms once the government includes elected civilians and the current military incumbents have handed over power to a younger generation of generals, she said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org