‘International opinion key in bringing change’

PRO-DEMOCRACY Burma leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released at the weekend after spending over 20 years under house arrest. Former British ambassador to Burma and now ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mark Canning (MC), this week fielded questions from the Zimbabwe Independent senior reporter Leonard Makombe (LM) on Suu Kyi. Below are excerpts.

LM: YOU were the British Ambassador to Burma before you moved to Zimbabwe. What was your reaction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s release?  Did you meet her when you were there?
MC: I did and I’m thrilled to see her free. She is every bit as remarkable as the TV pictures suggest –– resilient, charismatic, clever, crackling with energy and ideas. She might be small physically but she’s a towering figure in every other respect.
LM: What impact will her release have so many years after the 1990 elections which were supposed to usher in a new democratically elected government and after so many years of captivity?
MC: Aung San Suu Kyi is seen by the vast majority of Burmese, including I suspect by many in the regime, as a figure of overwhelming moral authority. She’s someone who has the ability to bridge Burma’s many divides if only she is given the chance. Many have argued that she is no longer relevant, that somehow events have moved on and that she is a relic of the past.  One has only to look at the reaction of the crowds this week to see what self-serving nonsense that is.
It’s wonderful to see her out, but important to recognise that being released, and being allowed to contribute to moving the country forward, are two very different things. We’ve seen her let out before only to be excluded. Burma is a country where pretty much every freedom is denied — there are 2 400 political prisoners, dissent of even the most minor kind is crushed, there is virtually no political and media space and few if any functioning institutions. There’s an entrenched military government – which has just given itself an unconvincing cosmetic makeover — and a number of ethnic insurgencies. Aung San Suu Kyi could be part of the solution to all of this provided she is allowed to work with those who hold the reins of power to move the country peacefully towards democracy and good governance, something she has committed herself to doing.
LM: What is your opinion on the move by powerful nations to push for the release of Suu Kyi? Can this push be used to deal with countries where the democratic space has been closed, for example Zimbabwe?
MC: There’s been a longstanding effort by many countries, powerful and less powerful, to press for her release and that clearly played a role in the calculations of Burma’s generals.  I don’t imagine they would have let her out had the world remained silent. So there is no doubt that the climate of international opinion has an important role to play in helping to bring about positive change in countries such as this. Britain and the EU will therefore of course continue to advocate the need for good governance and democracy in Zimbabwe and do what they can to help bring about the conditions that allow that to happen, as well as to help the people of this country in practical terms. Ultimately, however, it is a combination of internal dynamics and external pressure that brings about positive movement.
LM: What political similarities are there between Burma and Zimbabwe? What lessons do you think Zimbabwe and other countries where there has been a stranglehold by the junta, or a small group of people, can learn from the struggle in Burma?
MC: Although the two are often bracketed together, they don’t in reality have much in common. I do, however, see some parallels and lessons. The first is that good governance and economic prosperity can only happen if certain things are in good shape, notably the key institutions and the rule of law. These, together with the quality of the human capital and infrastructure, are the planks on which sustainable progress rests.
In Burma, they have sadly passed the point of no return. Zimbabwe, by contrast, has shown extraordinary resilience in weathering the violence and economic chaos of its recent past which tells you that that those foundations — although damaged — are broadly intact. That in turn underlines the fundamental importance of ensuring Zimbabwe’s institutions, whether for the administration of justice, the oversight of elections or security, be allowed to do their job free of political bias. Unless they work as they should, the future cannot be bright.
Second, several opportunities to move Burma forward have gone to waste over the years. The question for us here is whether the current political arrangement is, as the vast majority of people of goodwill want, going to be the staging point on the way to a more prosperous and democratic Zimbabwe or a temporary respite before we are dragged backwards once again. It would be a tragedy if it were the latter.
The final lesson for me is around natural resources. Burma’s are being plundered for the benefit of a small elite. The same is not true across the resource spectrum here but is certainly the case, glaringly so, where Marange diamonds are concerned.
So, it all comes down to choices, and those choices will dictate the direction of travel in fundamental ways — will institutions be allowed to do their job? Will resources be directed to the national good or to the pockets of a few? Will agreements be respected? Will the many brave and committed people who are working to move Zimbabwe forward face obstruction or will their ability be harnessed?  It’s the answer to those questions that will dictate Zimbabwe’s future for years to come. All those who consider themselves friends of this country — and I count the UK firmly in that group — hope fervently the right choices are made.

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