Myanmar is going through a period of transformation. Earlier this year, the military junta was dissolved and President Thein Sein, a former general, took over as head of a new, nominally civilian government. Despite low expectations, it appears that tangible steps towards democratic and economic reform and political reconciliation have been taken, including ending construction of a controversial hydroelectric dam project which would have flooded parts of Northern Myanmar and provided electricity mostly to China.
The pace of reform has been surprising. Yet, many remain skeptical over the new leadership’s true intentions; whether they are engaging in window dressing to convince the international community to lift sanctions, or whether true reform is taking place.
As Myanmar goes through this transition, much depends on the international, and especially regional and Western, responses to the domestic changes. Sanctions enacted in the 1990s and restrictions imposed on the activities of international organizations in Myanmar have had a crippling effect on Myanmar’s development.
The key challenge is to support the transition while making sure that reforms are genuine. To this extent, a progression from technical assistance and dialogue to more far-reaching assistance by the international community could be envisaged, ideally leading to the suspension and eventual lifting of sanctions.
Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia and has been home to repressive military regimes for decades. In 1990, following a failed nonviolent uprising led by iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, steps toward democratic reform were taken, and elections took place. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the elections by a wide margin, but the results were subsequently ignored, and rule by a military junta was re-instated under the leadership of General Than Shwe.
Over the twenty years since Myanmar’s abortive experiment with democracy, opposition forces have been suppressed; Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years, until November 2010. The country was subjected to a tough set of economic sanctions by the international community, causing economic and social development to stagnate. In a region where opportunity and rapid economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty in the last decades, the poor living conditions in Myanmar have become an increasingly sore exception.
Surprisingly, things have begun to change. After an election in the fall of 2010—which the NLD boycotted due to unfair rules—the junta has been dissolved, and a new, nominally civilian government headed by President Thein Sein, a former general, was installed in March 2011.
President Thein Sein has since taken steps to make good on the promise to reform the country. After a determined inaugural speech, tangible steps have been taken towards democratic reform: media censorship and internet restrictions have been lifted; political exiles have been invited to return; experts have been consulted on how to revive the economy. Even the parliament has been reinvigorated; it held lively debates and passed laws allowing for labor unions and democratic protests.
The new president has also undertaken public steps towards political reconciliation with both the suppressed democratic opposition movement and the longstanding ethnic conflicts involving minorities in Myanmar. Significantly, President Thein Sein has halted construction of a multibillion hydroelectric dam project to provide energy mostly for neighboring China on the Irrawaddy River in Northern Myanmar which would have flooded areas inhabited by members of the Kachin minority. Furthermore, in a meeting with great symbolic relevance, President Thein Sein also consulted the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has stated in the aftermath of the meeting that she believes the President’s reform efforts to be credible. She has since reiterated this statement, but also said that “An issue of great importance to all of us who are working for democracy in Burma is that of political prisoners. Some had been released over the last year, but there are still many who remain in prison.”
Indeed, the government has released a first group of over 200 political prisoners in October. Given that it is believed that there are almost 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar, this appears to be a symbolic gesture rather than a breakthrough. Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has mentioned as recently as November 8th that “15 ‘prisoners of conscience,’ currently on hunger strike in Insein prison, are being tortured or ill-treated, and that they have been denied drinking water.”
Myanmar’s transition to democratic governance and political reconciliation is far from complete – the real work still lies ahead. Responding to the changes in Myanmar, therefore, requires action by regional actors and the international community at large.
Regionally, the main responsibility lies with the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). On November 17th, ASEAN leaders will gather to decide which country will hold the rotating presidency of the regional body in 2014—a position Myanmar is energetically lobbying to win. Holding the ASEAN presidency would provide Myanmar with considerable international prestige. This could provide much needed positive external reinforcement of the reform efforts. According to a recent International Crisis Group report, “This would energize reformers inside the country, with real deadlines to work toward as they push for economic and political restructuring.” Some of the influence of ASEAN may be seen in the coming days—a release of further political prisoners is expected immediately before the ASEAN summit.
Internationally, the United Nations, the European Union and countries such as the United States will be crucial in calibrating a possible new approach towards Myanmar, as they are responsible for the tough sanctions which have been imposed on Myanmar. For them it will be more difficult politically to ease pressure on a cruel regime that has been isolated and punished for its behavior for decades. However—as many observers have noted—it is essential to not miss this opportunity and to provide support to democratization in Burma. The key to achieving this is providing various forms of tacit and direct support, short of lifting sanctions completely. Thant Myint-U, a historian and observer of Myanmar, called on the US to voice support for the reforms; to provide technical knowledge and advice; to allow UN agencies and international financial institutions to counsel the authorities in Myanmar as they go through the reform process; and to end trade embargoes on Myanmar to foster trade and investment.
Given the dramatic lack of economic and developmental progress in Myanmar, it is easy to understand why Myanmar’s leaders want sanctions to go away. And there is reason to be skeptical of their motivations. Therefore, all efforts to positively reinforce the liberalization need to be flexible: Myanmar should receive a “reform and reconciliation dividend” for steps it takes towards reform and liberalization. Any drastic steps, such as easing of sanctions and increased cooperation, should only follow verified, comprehensive, and irreversible change on the ground. Getting there will require creative compromises, and as Myanmar keeps progressing, suspending sanctions and reviewing progress in three- to six-month cycles could be a possible way forward.
In the above photo: Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein in October 2011