French foreign minister Alain Juppé became the latest western leader to visit Burma this week, following fast on the footprints of Britain’s William Hague and the US’s Hilary Clinton.
They have all hailed the process of “democratisation” taking place in the country and hinted at “rewards” that are to come. The US is even set to reopen its embassy.
After nearly five decades of military rule, in 2010 the Burmese junta nominally handed power to a civilian government led by a former general.
It has now released over 600 of its political prisoners. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been brought in from the cold.
She spent most of the last two decades under house arrest—but is now expected to run in elections in April. She has even openly speculated about taking a position in the new government.
The regime has also signed an agreement with an organisation representing the Karen ethnic minority, against which it fought a brutal civil war for decades.
Yet other ethnic conflicts in Burma continue. The war on the ethnic Kachin has displaced more an estimated 50,000 people in the last six months near the northern border with India and China.
Behind the hype of a “Burmese Spring”, politicians in the West have more cynical reasons to end decades of diplomatic and economic isolation. They are hungry for access to a potentially lucrative export market.
And they are keen to curb the growing influence of China in the region by strengthening Burma’s ties with the US, European Union and India. The slow and piecemeal democratisation process allows them to do this.
Activists in Burma are using the new climate to organise more openly. But many also feel betrayed by the political manoeuvres of those who claim to support them.