Myanmar’s Long Road Back

Ernest Chong

This year has certainly been a surprising one for Burma/Myanmar watchers. Beginning with the release of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest nearly a year ago, Myanmar’s nominally-civilian government has embarked on a gradual but sustained effort to implement political, social, and economic reforms. October saw the government unconditionally free more than 200 political prisoners as part of a larger amnesty announcement and pass new laws to give workers the right to form unions and strike. Internet restrictions have been lifted on a number of international media websites, while publication censorship has been relaxed. Political party laws have been amended to allow opposition parties to register – including Ms. Suu Kyi’s own political party, which will now run in the next by-election.

All this seemingly indicates a genuine desire in Naypyidaw to dispel its international pariah status for good and rejoin the international community. It has been rewarded with the 2014 Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) chairmanship – an appointment the country gave up in 2005. Last month, Hillary Clinton made the first US Secretary of State visit to Myanmar in more than half a century. While critics argue that the reforms were merely window dressing to better Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship bid and economic development, the efforts can nonetheless be seen as the first signs of a gradual process toward reconciliation and political openness. The next few years will be critical for Naypyidaw as it addresses the plethora of challenges in rebuilding the nation.

Politically, the government is motivated to stay in power. To that end, the government has rejected its traditional military allegiance and institutionally placed itself accountable to the constitution. Generals are now in civilian positions, and politicians have been emboldened to shout down these former military men. The current pro-regime party hopes to win again in 2015, but this time without the insinuations of a sham election. This is a major sticking point. Electoral laws under the 2008 constitution mandate 25 percent of the seats in parliament to the military, and the junta-backed party won 80 percent of the seats it campaigned for in the election last year.

Moreover, Ms. Suu Kyi cannot – and should not – shoulder the opposition burden on her own. As its most highly-visible representative, she is now largely exempt from Naypyidaw’s future crackdowns, but grassroots leaders must also participate, and be allowed to do so by the state. Having Ms. Suu Kyi in the political discourse gives the government a significant boost in legitimacy, but a large number of her fellow political prisoners still languish in prison. How other opposition parties and movements operate, and how freely and effectively they can do so, is the broader lens needed to gauge political change.

Socially, Naypyidaw faces the daunting task of reconstructing a society devastated by decades of junta rule and domestic strife. Its neighbours host significant refugee camps, a consequence of ethnic persecution. The largest challenge remains longstanding ethnic-minority movements for autonomy or independence. These armed conflicts have simmered for decades, and the brutal military offensives that attempted to quell them have resulted in countless human rights abuses. As part of its reform campaign, the government has tried to diplomatically bring parties back to the negotiating table, and with some success. Ceasefires with some rebel groups have been signed, but their longevity depends on further reintegration into Myanmar’s society and the passing of economic and political benefits to these historically-marginalized enclaves.

Beyond ethnic minorities, Myanma society faces the daunting task of national reconciliation. The regime’s senior leaders will not allow reforms to continue if they believe it will lead to their prosecution. Amnesty in this regard will be difficult to reconcile with a population that has suffered under their rule for decades. To her credit, Ms. Suu Kyi has none of the vindictiveness one might expect from her years of detention. Her moral authority and grace will be instrumental in establishing greater internal social cohesion, a necessary prerequisite in ensuring the permanency of recent and future reforms.

Economically, Naypyidaw understands that it has fallen far behind its ASEAN colleagues. Myanmar’s financial system remains one of the most rudimentary in Asia. Infrastructure – particularly transportation and energy – are in dire need of modernization. Inflation is high and the tax collection system needs strengthening. Without greater revenue, the country cannot pay for civil service, education, and health reforms. In ethnic rural areas, the narcotics industry has overtaken agricultural production, a staple Myanma export.

More importantly, Myanmar must dramatically improve its economy in order to meet certain participation conditions in ASEAN’s stated goal of a free-trade area for 2015. It is hoped that untapped energy deposits  and a fairly robust gemstone industry will serve as initial levers to wider growth.  Its reform campaign has attracted increased foreign investment, but a lack of an educated workforce makes value-added growth difficult. Indeed, large numbers of Myanma have gone abroad as migrant workers in neighbouring Asian countries as well as the Middle East.

Naypyidaw will need assistance in its transformation. Already Myanmar has asked for an end to economic sanctions in recognition of recent reforms and to help the country develop further. As much as the military-turned-civilian regime may loathe the notion, it is in Myanmar’s best interest – and thus its governing body’s interest – to continue reforms. Thein Sein has hung his administration’s international and domestic legitimacy largely on the success of these reforms. It thus has great motivation to comply with reasonable demands coupled to tangible incentives.

The international community therefore has a significant role in Myanmar’s future. Naypyidaw craves international approval. It has even indicated a new willingness to engage other international partners and their brand of conditional, ‘strings-attached’ support by rejecting the past regime’s unquestioning acceptance of Chinese financial assistance and political influence – best exemplified by the suspension of a controversial hydroelectric dam deal with Beijing. Indeed, Myanmar’s geopolitical and economic importance in the Sino-Indian rivalry, trans-Asia transportation hubs, and the Sino-American play for regional dominance give plenty of additional reasons why the international community should be involved in the country’s transition.

The key, however, is measured international support for Naypyidaw’s progress. A complete lack of recognition would signal to the population the international community’s insincerity in helping their plight and give the government a reason to reverse gains. Similarly, too much pressure will likely project the image of Naypyidaw kowtowing wholesale to Western value imperialism, fanning resentment in Myanmar’s hardliners and discouraging them from further reforms. No pressure and comprehensive support now, on the other hand, would allow Myanmar a relatively free ride to the chairmanship and remove further motivation and incentive to continue reforms. To that end, Hillary Clinton’s offering of small rewards and encouragement of further reforms was a carefully calibrated give-and-take process designed to maintain pressure but simultaneously acknowledge Naypyidaw’s efforts thus far.

Ultimately, change will be gradual. Given Myanmar’s decades of military rule, some level of failure in implementing new policies is also to be expected. Forcing reforms too rapidly will be as counter-productive as no change at all. Drastic action will destabilize a nation still attuned to a half-century of repressive authoritarian rule. Indeed, Asian nations have a cultural deference to authority (witness, for example, the rigid democracies of Singapore and Malaysia), and such a mindset is hard to give up. Even Ms. Suu Kyi is against a dramatic regime change akin to the Arab Spring uprisings, explicitly stating that it would not solve the country’s problems. Such instability would give hardliners an excuse to bring back the repressive status quo. Worse, the aftermath of such an uprising would not be in Myanmar’s long-term interest, as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya can now attest.

Indeed, Naypyidaw is likely to continue dispensing change on its terms precisely because they fear such a grassroots conflagration. It has realized that future socio-economically-derived unrest not unlike the Arab Spring remains a distinct possibility without genuine, long-term reforms. If change is inevitable, then at least the regime can control it from the top down rather than bend to unpredictable pressure from the bottom up. Continued repression will not lead to social stability or future economic viability.

Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. He is currently assistant publisher at Global Brief magazine and is an affiliated analyst for Polaris Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based geo-political consultancy start-up. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific. 

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