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Burma will struggle for attention in 2010

The extent of Burma’s “boutique” attraction for the international community will be tested this year as the opposition vies for attention amidst a horde of other, equally controversial, elections.

Joining Burma in polling this year will be a smorgasbord of countries that have hogged the world’s spotlight for the past decade, and which have proved perhaps more thorny for both the UN and the self-professed leading exporter of democracy, the United States. The effect could be that elections in Burma, long the cause célèbre for film stars and First Ladies, but denied any real emphatic action from world leaders, will be submerged by more pressing priorities.

Sudan is due to cast ballots in February this year, while Iraq will follow in March. Both countries present serious concerns for the international community: Khartoum’s electoral timetable is overshadowed by the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the ICC, while Iraq will require full US attention as calls for Washington to clean up and get out gather in momentum. President Obama, who rode into office on the promise of conjuring stability from the Baghdad rubble, cannot afford a repeat of the US-backed Afghanistan elections last year, which continue to be mired in accusations of corruption.

In three weeks, Sri Lanka will hold its first presidential elections since 2005, with the fallout of the government’s final offensive against the rebel Tamil Tigers in March 2009 still scarring the landscape there. The incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, will contest the elections against former army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, both of whom the UN has said may have violated international criminal law during the Tamil offensive.

The Venezuelan legislative elections in September will be closely monitored by the US for any opportunity to pounce on and weaken the grip of President Chavez, while Ukraine will vote later this month for the first time since 2004, and the subsequent, and now infamous, Orange Revolution that exploded following controversy over the results.

Elsewhere a tide of change may be sweeping across Africa, particularly in the conflict-ravaged Great Lakes, where Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania will also head to the ballot box. The May elections in Ethiopia will serve as an acid test for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose previous inauguration into office in 2005 was followed by protests in which nearly 200 people were killed.

Thus Burma’s position this year on the priority list is perhaps more tenuous than one might think. It would appear that the ruling junta has picked its election year wisely, comforted by the prospect that the attention that really matters could be focused elsewhere. Moreover, details of the elections have been sufficiently vague so as to render preparation, both by international diplomats and media, not to mention the opposition inside Burma, an exhausting and frustrating task.

It is sobering to contrast the importance of Burma for the two major diplomatic powers, the US and UN, against the multitude of other major political events this year. While the US needs a government in Burma that will block the encroachment of China, this danger is less immediate that the potential fallout of yet another disaster in Iraq, particularly given the fragile platform Obama now stands on. Burma has been labeled a “boutique issue” for the US when weighed against the global ramifications of a nuclear North Korea or Iran, a sweeping anti-US ‘pink’ tide across Latin America, or further fissuring of the Middle East.

Similarly, the UN will forever be haunted by its impotence during the Darfur conflict in Sudan, not to mention the Rwandan genocide, and will need to concentrate its efforts on removing the prospect of continuing bloodshed there. Pressure on the UN to channel energy towards Burma this year will be comparatively weak given the adeptness of the junta, unlike al-Bashir, at hiding much of the continuing atrocities from the world’s eyes.

Ironically, the ongoing international outrage at opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentencing last year could be the one beacon of hope for the secretive, pariah state, such is the continued draw and idolatry of the 64-year-old. Any infringement on her catapults Burma onto the world stage, but the words of kindness from world leaders hide a limp reluctance to really intervene, and do little to advance her cause. The inability of the West to really engage and invest in the Burma crisis may speak volumes for any hope of change in the coming elections.