Editorial: Burma visit confirms hope for democracy

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PM's presence opens way for NZ business to expand into burgeoning market.

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Fairfax media
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Fairfax media

John Key had the hardest of acts to follow when he arrived in Burma yesterday. Just a few days previously, President Barack Obama had brought Rangoon, the country's biggest city, to a virtual standstill during his ground-breaking six-hour visit. The New Zealand Prime Minister created far less of a stir, but his presence conveyed the same message about the remarkable rehabilitation of what was until recently a pariah state.

This turnaround offers a message of hope to all people suffering under repressive regimes. Just five years ago, the military junta that had run Myanmar since 1962 was bloodily repressing a popular uprising led by the country's venerated Buddhist monks. It seemed committed to clinging to power by whatever means rather than accede to demands for negotiations that would lead to the restoration of democracy. Within a few short years, however, it acknowledged its time was up. In late 2010, the pro-democracy champion, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from years of house arrest. The following year, the generals stood aside, and a new President, Thein Sein, promised to take Myanmar down a path of reform.

Whether that change of heart about democracy and human rights has gone far enough to justify the seal of approval effectively bestowed by the visits of President Obama and Mr Key is a moot point. While major steps have been taken towards easing repression, including free and fair byelections and the relaxation of media censorship, Burma's Government continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners. It also struggles to contain ethnic violence. There could yet be further stumbles on the road to democracy. But, as President Obama emphasised, that process deserves every encouragement.

Burma's abrupt change contains lessons for those wishing to benefit from its new openness. Economic sanctions imposed by the West in the early 1990s drove the country into the hands of the Chinese and, for a long time, the generals were content with that arrangement if only because it shielded them from any meaningful international repercussions. But China overplayed its hand. Its lack of respect for the people and customs of Burma bred widespread resentment and a belief the country's rich resources were being unfairly exploited by Chinese companies.

Finally, the junta reacted, beginning to open the country to the West. The policy fitted snugly with America's accelerating pivot towards Asia and its quest for allies and influence to counter China's growth. In that context, Burma, with its 2000km border with China, is a significant coup for the US and President Obama's more conciliatory foreign policy - and a considerable blow to Beijing.

New Zealand was among the first countries to react to the shift. Mr Key will build on ground prepared by Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully's earlier visit. Clearly, the opening of a country of 60 million people to the West creates a promising new market for New Zealand companies. There is plenty of room for growth. Burma is this country's 100th largest trading partner. Exports have increased steadily over the past few years, notably in milk powder and butter, but last year they earned just $21.3 million.

Not too much should be expected too soon. The half-century of military rule was as notable for economic mismanagement and corruption as for brutal repression. But the end of isolation and Burma's wealth of natural resources offer rapid and rewarding change. In a world where repressive regimes often have to be forced to give up power, this is an extremely welcome departure.

- NZ Herald

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