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Mon, May 13, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Myanmar's `New Dawn' rises on regional highway


"It's a new dawn for the country."

So proclaimed Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the Nobel-Prize-holding Burmese dissident, as she stepped into sunlight and freedom this past week after 12 years of off-and-on house arrest in Myanmar. It is that, yes. It's also a considerable step forward for Asia in general as it moves on its gradual way toward regional economic integration.

Hearing news of Aung's release last Monday, I couldn't help thinking of a highway I heard about a month or so ago. India, Myanmar, and Thailand, it seems, are about to embark on a project that will link their cities to enhance trade, investment, and all-around connectedness among these somewhat distant neighbors.

What's the connection between Aung and a long ribbon of concrete? As I see it, quite simple. While Aung's release will have potentially immense consequences for the revival and opening of Myanmar, we shouldn't miss that it's also a big step for the region, another stitch in the fabric of cooperation and unity.

The popular response to the decision by the military junta that rules Burma to set Aung free has been that the stick of sanctions has worked. Economic sanctions have been in place for 13 years, and they have taken a severe toll.

But look beyond this. A United Nations diplomat initiated secret talks last year aimed at securing Aung's release.

Almost inevitably, political and diplomatic pressure mounted in the months after these negotiations began and became more widely publicized -- not least from Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbors, who have long understood that Myanmar's tragedy is in some measure their own.

In the end, East Asians appear to have applied carrots instead of sticks, chiefly by holding out the prospect of economic development and a place at the Southeast Asian table. The interesting point here is that this appears to have given Myanmar's neighbors far more influence in Yangon than Americans or Europeans have managed.

Behind the scenes, the junta ruling Myanmar since 1988 has been in an advancing state of disarray. By late last year, a power struggle was evident between two top military leaders -- one the junta's deputy chairman, the other the head of military intelligence.

The economy, such as it can be measured with any confidence, has been tanking. Malnutrition among children under five runs to 40 percent, according to an International Monetary Fund report.

The Burmese currency, the kyat, lost half its value in the course of last year. Inflation -- as measured by food prices -- is rising substantially: The price of rice jumped almost 40 percent in the second half of last year.

"The sanctions have taken their toll," Josef Silverstein, a Myanmar specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said this week. "This is a country that has run out of money, and it's in a desperate situation."

Small, poor Burma has also become a large point of contention in recent years among the powers bordering it, as small, poor nations have a habit of doing. India has watched warily as China has pursued plans to make Myanmar an export route for China's landlocked southwestern provinces.

By last year, Beijing and Rangoon were talking about a 30-year agreement that would provide for highway and waterway transportation facilities giving the mainland access to the Myanmar coast.

This is the context in which that highway came to mind. The announcement was delivered in early April that Myanmar, Thailand, and India would cooperate on a trilateral expressway project intended to run straight through Myanmar from the Indian city of Moreh to Mae Sot in Thailand. Among the cities it will serve is Dawei, a Myanmar port that links the nation to the coast of eastern India.

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