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To end rule by generals

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Something is happening in Myanmar, or Burma, as the country is more commonly known even though it was renamed after a military coup installed a government of generals in 1988. It is something worth paying attention to, even if it is happening in a country of which we know little and mostly care about less, because it is something remarkable that might echo around the world.

There was a time not long ago when much of the world was run by generals.

In much of the world, military governments were more the rule than the exception -- in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia, it was the colonels who, quite literally, called the shots while aspiring voters stayed bunkered in their basements.

In recent years, that has changed considerably. The nations of Central and South America are mostly democracies now, with the notable exception of Cuba and the doubtfulness of Venezuela.

Even Asia is mostly free, with the extraordinary exception of China -- that sleeping giant, as Napoleon called it, has awoken with a truly terrible temper when it comes to the human rights of its citizens, but that is hardly surprising, since the Chinese government represents the world's last communists, unless you count the North Koreans and the Cubans. Much of Africa, unfortunately, remains the political basket case of the democratic world.

This week there was an election in Myanmar. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party won resoundingly -- of the 45 seats that were up for grabs, she won 43, an extraordinary accomplishment given the election was run by a military dictatorship that had kept her under house arrest since she won the last free election in Myanmar more than two decades ago. Even Myanmar President Thein Sein opined it was an election "conducted in a very successful manner."

And it does seem to have been a free and fair election, something hardly anyone would have imagined could happen even two years ago. Generals don't usually give up their power that easily, and colonels in tinpot tyrannies are usually quite content to continue killing malcontents as long as they are told to do so.

But this week, Ms. Suu Kyi's party won and was allowed to assume its place in the Myanmar congress. It was perhaps no coincidence that the election, and the military government's compliance with its results, occurred at the same time as a summit in Cambodia of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The government of Myanmar is feeling the pinch of international sanctions imposed against it because of its atrocious human rights record. And that is not really a coincidence either. Rather, it is a message to the world that sanctions can work, that the age of the generals and their killing colonels may be coming to an end, that we may be able to make the world a better place if we truly apply ourselves to that task.

But that takes some real effort. It is not difficult to impose sanctions on Burma, or Myanmar, if you prefer, because it really does not matter much in international affairs. It costs us almost nothing.

Switch those names around, however. Substitute Syria or Iran for Myanmar, and the cost goes up considerably. Both those nations are worse than Burma has ever been, but the international community is not willing to do much about it.

The military government in Myanmar made a wise decision when it allowed a free and fair election and accepted the results, a wise decision not just for itself but for the Burmese people, perhaps the first time this government has ever shown them that much consideration.

"The process," said one ASEAN observer, "was more important than the result." That's true, but it's only true if we learn from it that international action can actually end the rule of generals and dictators.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2012 A10

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