With Myanmar embarked on a remarkable top-down transition from five decades of authoritarian rule and extensive reforms already in place, it is time for the international community to help it address the remaining complex and numerous challenges by ending sanctions and looking to cooperation rather than coercion to promote further change.
Reform in Myanmar: One Year On, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the real changes that have been taking place during the first year in office of President Thein Sein. Addressing the nation on 1 March, he made clear that the goal is to introduce “genuine democracy” and that there is still much more to be done. This ambitious agenda includes further democratic reform, healing bitter wounds of the past, rebuilding the economy and ensuring the rule of law, as well as respecting ethnic diversity and equality.
To consolidate and build on what has been achieved and increase the likelihood that benefits flow to all its citizens, Myanmar now needs the international community to seek opportunities for greater engagement rather than more reasons why sanctions should be sustained. As the European Union (EU) approaches a key decision point in late April on whether to renew sanctions, the value of the coercive measures must be reconsidered.
“The speed and extent of these reforms has raised questions about how sustainable the process is”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “Any such program of major political change must inevitably face serious tests, but the broad consensus among the political elite on the need for fundamental change means that the risk of a reversal appears low”.
The by-elections held on 1 April represent a political watershed. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) returned to the formal political process and secured a landslide victory, winning 43 of the 45 seats. These NLD representatives, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, will now take up their seats in the national legislature. The NLD has become the largest opposition party. This does not alter the balance of power, given that only a small percentage of seats were at stake, but it is of major symbolic importance, as it has the potential to inject greater dynamism into political life.
Beyond making the country more democratic, all those in government and parliament face many serious challenges. There is limited institutional and technical capacity to carry out detailed policy formulation and to implement some of the reform measures being adopted. While reforming the economy is vital and long overdue, there is a risk that making major policy changes in a context of unreliable data and weak economic institutions could create unintended economic shocks. The signing of preliminary ceasefires with the government by all but one of the ethnic armed groups is a major achievement. Nevertheless, a sustainable peace will require a lot more work, especially as no deal has yet been reached with one of the largest groups, the Kachin Independence Organisation, and serious clashes continue.
“The Myanmar government has gone extraordinarily far in putting aside old prejudices and reaching out to even the most strident of its critics domestically and internationally”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “The West should now make a commensurate effort to forge a new partnership. With the long-awaited reforms underway, there is no valid rationale for keeping sanctions in place”.