There’s a peculiar club – its members are spread around the world, but they all pretty much know each other, or at least they know of each other. They don’t really have a name, but let’s call them “The Burma Watchers.”
People who know or claim to know about Burma (currently officially called Myanmar, except for those in the know who prefer the old name because its not affiliated with the junta).
A lot of The Burma Watchers are activists or NGO workers, some are journalists and writers who’ve been following events in the region for years, there are a few politicians, a few academics, and then there are the insiders on the outside if you know what I mean – a scattering of Burmese who either live outside the country, or who can come and go with an ease denied to most ordinary Burmese citizens.
It’s hard to say exactly how many members there are in this club, but there are different tiers of membership. Those with the highest status would be those who are acquainted with Aung San Suu Kyi, who have met or worked with her; the closer the claimed connection to this icon, the higher the status. There are the ones who have spent years studying the country, writing papers or articles, lobbying for political sanctions against Burma or agitating for more international attention to the area.
Burma has, for years, been one of those issues where it seemed so easy to be on the side of Good and against Evil. It’s a narrowing category, along with Darfur, Tibet and North Korea left as the other major contenders.
For years, The State Law and Order Commission (with its sinister abbreviation of SLORC) seemed so obviously the bad guy that every Slorc-ian may as well have been handed out a cape and vampire mask as part of their career starter kit. It’s later avatar, the State Peace and Development Council was no better, with their version of peace being mainly to kill, rape and rob as many defenceless ethnic civilians as possible.
And in this struggle against a repressive regime terrorizing their own citizens, there grew an attending army of NGO’s and lobby groups around the world. Burma Watching became not just a calling but a profession on which an avalance of dollars and euros were spent by Western governments keen being seen to make a stand on international human rights.
Then came the “first democratic” elections in Burma in 2010 - an affair easy to mock when the all-powerful junta reserved 75% of all seats. The government that hatched out of those elections was encrusted with some of the biggest power brokers of the last regime.
Then came the first tentative steps at reform. The Lady was released and her movements were not curtailed, she gave interviews, she even wrote articles for the local papers – unthinkable just a year previously. In September and October of 2011, a run of events caused great consternation and even tentative rejoicing: Prime Minister Thein Sein met Aung San Suu Kyi at his home, under a portrait of her father, the revolutionary icon, Aung San; construction was halted on the Myitsone Dam, a major government project, because of public pressure; a couple of hundred political prisoners were released.
What did all this mean? It had to be a sham right? Nothing good could possibly come out of the government of Burma?
But anyone who’s paying attention, will see the words “constructive dialogue” on everyone’s lips these days. The US State Department has been holding high level talks, ASEAN may well agree to Burma taking over the chairmanship in 2014, and there are talks of sanctions being lifted if the Myanmar leadership continues along the path of reform. But all this activity does raise a question about the Burma Watchers: what will happen to them if the goverment of Burma stops being a black and white kind of Baddie?
Let’s put on those rose tinted specs for a second. If Burma does start making a transition to a normal peaceful democratic society – oh Praise the Lord – and if say within a decade or so looks like one of its neighbours looks now - a growing economic powerhouse, what place will there be for the Burma Watchers?
Will they become redundant relics, historians of a lost age? I mean what’s happened to the the Cold War specialists of another age? Where are they now?
Rose coloured spectacles off and the whole thing mirage of a peaceful, democratic and increasingly wealthy Burma melts into the sands again. But history has a way of taking sudden lurches into a future no one could have forseen. Maybe the Burma Watchers need to look around for a Career Plan B.