Six months after the transition to a new, semi-civilian government, major changes are taking place in Myanmar, but many steps still need to be taken to overcome decades of conflict.
Myanmar: Major Reform Underway, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines how President Thein Sein has moved rapidly to begin implementing an ambitious reform agenda first set out in his March 2011 inaugural address. Since mid-July there has been a dramatic change of approach as he has reached out to long-time critics of the former regime, proposing that differences be put aside in order to work together for the good of the country. National League of Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has seized the opportunity, meeting the new leader in Naypyitaw and emerging with the conviction that he wants to achieve positive change.
“In recent weeks a series of concrete steps have been taken to begin implementing the president’s reform agenda, aimed at reinvigorating the economy, reforming national politics and improving human rights”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “While there are strong indications that the political will exists to bring fundamental change, success will require much more than a determined leader, as resistance can be expected from hardliners in the power structure and spoilers with a vested interest in the status quo”.
President Thein Sein’s inauguration followed 50 years of authoritarian military rule . His new administration, which assumed responsibility for a country still split by deep ethnic division and violent conflict, took some months to gain momentum but now seems to be setting a completely different tone for governance, allowing discussions and initiatives that were unthinkable only a few months ago.
There are already indications that key benchmarks many in the West have insisted on may soon be reached, as major initiatives, such as the release of political prisoners, are now under consideration. Internal progress on human rights and economic reforms that benefit the country’s citizens should be acknowledged and supported by the international community. Crisis Group has long held the view that sanctions on Myanmar – targeted and non-targeted – are counterproductive, encouraging a siege mentality among its leadership and harming its mostly poor population. The greater the pace of change, the weaker the rationale becomes for continuing them – or adding more.
“With the political process moving ahead quickly, now is not the time for the West to remain disengaged and sceptical”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “It is critical to grasp this unique opportunity to support a process that not even the most optimistic observers saw coming. This requires a new, pro-active and engaged approach, in line with the positive signals coming from Naypyitaw”.