News / Asia

Foreign Envoys Flock to Burma

U.S. Sen. John McCain, left, is greeted by Myanmar's Vice President Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo during their meeting at the President's House in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, June 1, 2011
U.S. Sen. John McCain, left, is greeted by Myanmar's Vice President Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo during their meeting at the President's House in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, June 1, 2011

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Neetie Upadhye

Kevin Rudd became the first Australian foreign minister to visit Burma since 2002, when he touched down in the country on Thursday.

He is one of many international envoys to travel to the long-isolated country since its November election, its first in nearly two decades.

Burma expert Sean Turnell of Australia’s Macquarie University says Rudd and other diplomats are trying to get a sense of the new civilian government.

He says they want to know what is on the agenda of President Thein Sein, once Burma’s fourth-highest ranking military general.

"I think people are just trying to gauge whether there was any change or not," Turnell said. "We know the election was terribly problematic and so on. But there have been some personnel changes. And I just think people are really just trying to see if there has been any change at all."

Each country reaching out to the long-isolated nation has its own motivations. Rudd’s visit marks renewed efforts by Australia to push democratic reform and human rights. The United States also has rights at the top of its agenda.

U.S. Senator John McCain pushed this issue on a fact-finding mission in early June. And on Wednesday, he told VOA that U.S.-Burma ties took a “step backwards” this week when Burma warned democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stay out of politics.

“The new government is saying things that appear to give ground to optimism, but their actions have not comported with that yet," McCain said. "And that is very disappointing and most of all the people of Burma deserve better.”

India is looking to capitalize on Burma’s rich natural resources and stabilize the restless border region between the two countries. Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna emphasized business during a June diplomatic visit.

“I think there is great potential in this area to increase trade and investment opportunities. The president was particular to convey that Myanmar is open for investments from all over,” Krishna told reporters after his visit.

Beijing has an eye on energy, and is spearheading several hydropower dams and a gas pipeline extending from the Bay of Bengal, through Burma, to China. When the pipeline opens, China is on track to become Burma’s number one trade partner, surpassing Thailand.

Although Burma has opened its doors to a flood of high-level international visitors, observers say this does not appear to have translated to an improvement in human rights. Turnell says in some cases, the connections have made conditions worse. He draws links between China’s investments projects in Burma’s ethnic Kachin state and the recent deadly fighting there.

“China, unfortunately, has just been incredibly destructive. China’s voracious demand for energy and raw materials is really supplying the old regime, and people connected to it, with vast amounts of money,” Turnell said.

The Burmese government says its soldiers are warding off raids by Kachin rebels on Chinese projects. The Kachin fighters say a breakdown in peace talks triggered the violence that has spurred thousands of Kachin to flee across the border into China. Rights groups have accused the military of raping Kachin women in the conflict.

That deadly fighting and the renewed ban on Aung San Suu Kyi’s political activities are reminiscent of Burma’s former military leadership. But David Lipman, the European Union ambassador to Burma, says something is different.

“This is a time of change. There seems to be change. At the same time it’s a moment of opportunity. We will be waiting to see what happens on the ground. In other words, we are going to judge this government by their deeds,” Lipman said after wrapping up his visit to Burma last week.

Burma says its transition from a military government to civilian leadership is a key step in its “roadmap to democracy.” And government supporters say reform takes time. Time that many Burmese complain is not moving fast enough.  

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