By C. S. Kuppuswamy
“Perhaps the Myanmar military understood the lessons from the Middle East: if the leadership refused to reform, society may force change. It may not be revolution that some have desired, but it does bring the possibility of positive change in Myanmar” – David I Steinberg.
“Myanmar is now in the process of rebalancing its foreign relations to ensure the regime’s survival and future cohesion of the armed forces. Thein Sein and the powerful military forces that back him realize that there must be some icing on the cake for the US and the European union to accept his nominally civilian regime and consider lifting sanctions”. – Bertil Lintner
“The question should really be why it has taken so long to take the very simple and common -sense steps that we’ve seen over the past few months” – Thant Myint-U.
Myanmar is changing and changing for the better. Much water has flown in the Irrawaddy between November 2010, when the multi party elections were held after two decades and November 2011 when Myanmar was seeking a place amongst the democracies of the world. From July 2011 a spate of changes have been seen in all spheres be it political, economic, labour welfare, freedom of the press or concessions to ethnic minorities. Why these changes? Are these irreversible? What is the motive for these changes? Will there be a backlash from the military for these changes? Myanmar watchers are busy in finding answers to these questions and many more that have cropped up. It is rather too simplistic to assume that the changes are for ease of sanctions imposed by the West or to secure the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014.
Political: President Thein Sein, in his opening speech to the second parliamentary session in August 2011, said his government will continue to reach to the opposition groups who have not accepted the 2008 Constitution and will continue to build peace with armed ethnic groups. He has been true to his word .
Besides a series of meetings Aung San Suu Kyi had with Aung Kyi, the minister earmarked for relations with her, she met President Thein Sein on 19 August 2011 at his residence. She might have also been surprised to see the President seated under a portrait of her father Aung San. She expressed after the meeting that there is hope for positive changes.
More than 200 political prisoners out of an estimated 2000 were released in early October 2011 under a general amnesty. Those released were unimportant people except for Zarganar a comedian, some members of the NLD and members of activist groups. An AFP report of 13 November 2011 indicates that Myanmar is to declare an amnesty on 14 November 2011 that will include political detainees and government officials. The report adds that “some prisoners of conscience” from outside Yangon are also to be released under this amnesty. If this happens, it will be a positive development.
The Political Parties Registration Law has been amended to change the provisions that were objected to by the NLD prior to 2010 election including the one that precluded her from participating in the elections. The NLD is said to be seriously considering to re-register as a political party.
The debate in the parliament is more free as opposed to what it was when the parliament was convened in January this year (2011). Significant motions such as the one on release of political prisoners were openly discussed and passed.
Most surprising has been the decision of President Thein Sein to suspend the construction of Myitsone dam project. This US $ 3.6 billion project was funded by China and the bulk of the power generated would have gone to China. The suspension was supposedly in deference to public outcry for environmental concerns and loss of land and livelihood to local population. By this move US and the Western nations have been placated to believe that Myanmar’s policy is not influenced by China. Again this reasoning is too simplistic.
President Thein Sein has entreated exiled Myanmar citizens to return home. All will be welcome except those who have committed criminal offences and even in such cases the exiles will be treated leniently. He added that a legislation for this purpose is underway.
Economic: In July 2011, the Government announced a substantial increase in pensions which will benefit over 840 000 pensioners.
Discussions were held with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for unifying the country’s foreign exchange rate policy and easing of the prevalent currency restrictions.
A National Level workshop on Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation was held in Naypyitaw from 20 to 22 May 2011. A joint workshop with UN on revitalising Myanmar’s rice economy was held on 27 June 2011. A National workshop on Reforms for Economic Development of Myanmar was held in Naypyitaw from 19 to 21 August, 2011 for which Aung San Suu Kyi was invited. She attended the workshop and interacted with a host of officials and other invitees. Such open discussion on the country’s economy was a rarity till recently.
Media: The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) liberalised the censorship rules in June 2011 allowing stories on sports, entertainment, technology, health and children’s literature to be published without prior approval.
The government mouthpiece—The New Light of Myanmar stopped printing slogans accusing the foreign media and the media in exile.
The Government has unblocked many international news sites such as the BBC, Democratic Voice of Burma, Radio Free Asia and the voice of America.
The censorship on the local press has been considerably liberalised. After more than two decades an article of Aung San Suu Kyi was published in the local media in September 2011. Even an interview with her was published in a local weekly.
The local media, for the first time, was allowed to take pictures inside the parliament during the second session in August 2011 and cover the debates and proceedings of the parliament but were prohibited from asking questions.
Labour Welfare: A new labour law has been enacted to enable the trade unions to function and make limited strikes legal.
Human Rights: A National Human Rights Commission has been appointed in September 2011. It consists mainly of retired government officials, ex-diplomats and academics with some them from ethnic and religious minorities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed in July 2011 to visit the prisons in Myanmar after 5 years and monitor the conditions of the prisoners.
Ethnic Minorities: An Ethnic Affairs and Peace Committee was formed in August 2011 with Khin Aung Myint, a upper house MP, as the Chairman.
The ethnic groups have been advised to contact the state governments for entering into peace talks. The government has also contacted some ethnic groups through some interlocutors for some ad hoc peace agreements.
The International Community
USA: In the last few months there have been a flurry of visits from the US officials – US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun (May 2011), US Senator John McCain (June 2011), US Special Envoy Derek Mitchell (September, October and November 2011) and Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (November 2011).
Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin while on a visit to New York in September 2011 for the UN General Assembly had some “intense deliberations” with the US officials.
The US Congress has however (in September 2011) extended trade sanctions against Myanmar by one more year in view of the Myanmar Government’s “continued human rights violations and suppression of political opposition”. However, it acknowledged that “the regime has made some modest movement towards dialogue with the opposition”.
Extracts from the official transcript of the press conference held at Yangon on 05 November 2011 on the conclusion of Mitchell and Posner’s trip reveals that:
“Relations between our two governments will be eased greatly if we see significant progress in these areas (Release of political prisoners, participation by opposition in the political life and the conflict in ethnic areas)………..We look forward to be able to play a more active and supportive role in the Burmese people’s aspirations for human rights and democracy……..We will need to see some much more concrete steps in order to lift the sanctions”.
“It appears there are real changes taking place on the ground and we support these early efforts at reform. We want to see the people of Burma able to participate fully in the political life of their own country. The US would continue to call for release of all political prisoners, an end to conflict in minority areas and greater transparency regarding Burma’s relations with North Korea”–US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (12 November 2011).
European Union (EU): EU has hailed political changes underway in Myanmar. A two- day workshop was organized by EU at Yangon on financial reform and poverty reduction from 07 November 2011. Ambassador David Lipman, head of the EU delegation to Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar told reporters that “the European Union is very much hoping to support and encourage this momentum of change”.
China: China has not reacted much on the changes that are taking place in Myanmar except for the suspension of the much touted US $ 3.6 billion Myitsone Dam Project funded by China. Even though there were some harsh statements from China Power Investment Corporation which is the main investor in the project, the official reaction has been subdued but firm on adequate compensation for the suspension. Myanmar has also tried to pacify China with some high level visits to explain the suspension.
As of now, China is indispensable for the well being of Myanmar. China has big stakes in Myanmar and cannot allow the relations to be strained because of this suspension. Chinese analysts have indicated that President Thein has resorted to this step to please the US and other Western nations. China is worried on the growing anti-China sentiments in Myanmar.
ASEAN: ASEAN has appreciated the democratic changes in Myanmar but had its reservations for according the Chairmanship of the Bloc to Myanmar in 2014. However, consequent to a fact finding visit of the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to Myanmar in end October 2011 and his interaction with the officials and Aung San Suu Kyi, the chances of Myanmar to take over the chair have become bright. Though he was non-committal on the outcome of the visit he expressed satisfaction on the “trajectory of positive developments” in Myanmar.
India: The Prime Minister of India congratulated the President of Myanmar, who was on a state visit to India from 12 to 15 October 2011, on the transition towards democratic government and offered all necessary assistance in further strengthening this democratic transition in an inclusive and broad based manner (Ministry of External Affairs – Joint Statement on the state visit – 14 October, 2011).
Non-official opinion in India is still divided whether Thein Sein’s move to liberalize the regime is genuine or whether it is for tactical reasons for international acceptance. Indian efforts should therefore encourage Myanmar to take irreversible steps towards a liberal democratic regime. It is also equally essential for India not to abandon the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.
Japan: While considering the recent developments in Myanmar as a positive step in its transition towards democracy, Japan has resumed its Official Development Assistance to Myanmar, earlier suspended in September 2007 after the Saffron Revolution.
United Nations: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recognized the significance of recent developments in Myanmar. He met with Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin on 18 September 2011 who was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly and urged that Myanmar should release political prisoners and not miss the opportunity of the improved goodwill of the International Community.
Ban Ki-moon had also discussed the current situation in Myanmar in a meeting of his Friends of Burma (a group of 14 countries).
UN Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar visited Myanmar (May 2011 and October 2011) and had interacted with the officials and Aung San Suu Kyi for an assessment of the ground realities in the country. His second visit was to convey the message of UN Secretary General for release of political prisoners and to maintain momentum on the reforms.
UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana visited Myanmar in August 2011 and interacted with the officials as well as Aung San Suu Kyi. He had also met a number of political prisoners in the Insein Jail.
Some analysts, particularly the Burmese media in exile, are sceptic on the changes and consider them “too little, too late”. They consider these changes have taken place not due to a change of heart of the rulers but under pressure to realign its geopolitical interests.
Some other analysts have lauded these changes as positive and that the civilian government is on the right track in its transition towards democracy, especially with its willingness to accommodate Suu Kyi and her party in the political set-up. These analysts are also urging the international community to encourage the process by lifting the sanctions.
Some analysts, particularly the human rights activists, hail the changes in all spheres except for human rights mostly affecting the ethnic minorities. There is no respite in the continuing ethnic conflict which has resulted in thousands being internally displaced, civilians targeted by Myanmar Army, forced labour, using prisoners as human shields and mine sweepers, raping women etc. These analysts want the army to be made accountable for their actions and consider the reform process incomplete without reconciliation with the ethnic minorities.
The reactions of the international community have been on expected lines except for USA. The US, despite sending some high level visitors to Myanmar, is still only at the stage of debates, discussions and consultations except for announcing some plans for aid on microfinance and agricultural loans.
Media reports indicate that with the growing dominance of China over Myanmar in almost all walks of life and with the increasing presence of Chinese citizens in the urban areas, the anti-China sentiments are growing especially in the military circles. Some analysts are of the view that this has been the main factor for the sweeping changes that have been introduced and for the suspension of the Myitsone dam project by President Thein Sein.
Former Indian ambassadors and analysts consider that this is an ideal opportunity for India to improve the relations further and encourage the democratic process in Myanmar.
The reactions of the military to these changes are not clear though media reports indicate that there are some hardliners (former military officers) in the administration who have expressed their reservations on some of these changes. The military has been accorded a special status in the 2008 Constitution guaranteeing them their rights and protecting them for their actions. In the absence of a clear reaction form the military, fears are being expressed that a ‘military coup’ cannot be ruled out. One will have to watch the Tatmadaw carefully, before venturing into any simplistic analysis.
From the changes implemented, it appears that the present course adopted by Myanmar is more towards democracy and not national reconciliation. To achieve national reconciliation the ethnic minorities constituting more than 30 per cent of the population have to be taken on board and attempts made to fulfil their aspirations. This has not been given due importance in the reforms carried out so far.
There is no denying the fact that in the last six months there has been a slew of positive changes in Myanmar. An attempt to accommodate the opposition, particularly Suu Kyi is seen though this may be because of the US obsession for her participation in the political set-up. Even if the aim of these changes, is only to rebalance the country’s foreign relations or lifting of the sanctions, the benefits will accrue to the nation. The positive effects of the changes are already seen in the political, economic and social spheres and by the feverish activity to engage the regime by other nations. This momentum has to be carried forward and Myanmar should be encouraged not only to push for democracy further, but steady steps are taken to deal with the ethnic problem that has raised its head again.