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Forgive and forget key to Burma’s democracy?

By Graham Cooke - posted Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Sanctions should not be re-imposed on the Burma regime, despite clear evidence of continued Government abuse, a leading Australian expert on the country says.

Morten Pedersen said there was a growing call among human rights organisations for the increasing engagement with Burma to be halted and even reversed. “That reflects a dangerous reading of what is going on,” he said.

Pedersen, a senior lecturer in international and political studies at the University of NSW, who has spent seven of the past 15 years in Burma, said that after 60 years of internal conflict the regime will not change overnight.


“But [President] Thein Sein has a clear and remarkable commitment to changing the country,” he said.

Pedersen’s comments come in the wake of a number of worrying signs within Burma. Last month the United Nations, while welcoming the discharge of 24 child soldiers from the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army), said there was still much more to be done.

A report from Child Soldiers International said that despite recent progress “recruitment of children by the Tatmadaw is ongoing, albeit on a reduced scale”.

Child soldiers are also employed by various rebel groups, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is locked in a fierce conflict with the Tatmadaw in the far north of the country.

Despite recent attempts at finding a settlement the KIA has steadfastly refused to sign up for a ceasefire. The Burmese Government claims it is simply mounting a policing action in the region, but reports on the ground suggest all-out assaults employing air power and heavy artillery.

And in another example of just how fragile the current shift towards democracy and civil control in Burma is, there are suggestions that the Tatmadaw has launched the all-out offensive in defiance of Thein Sein’s orders. As one commentator put it: “the lines of control, command and accountability are exceedingly opaque.”


The semi-independence of the armed forces has its origins in Burma’s post-colonial history. For most of the past half-century the generals have been the actual and absolute rulers of the country, reaping the rewards that this power brings. Pedersen says the transition to democracy has to take this into account.

“There are too many corrupt ex-generals around and the officers under them are waiting their turn to get at the spoils. If the military decide all of this is suddenly going to be taken away from them a backlash coup is entirely possible,” he said.

Keeping the military happy while delivering on the expectations that come with increased democratic freedoms will be a daunting task for the current Government and the one that follows after the election of 2015.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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