President Thein Sein’s actions over the last few months suggest he is a skillful leader who has the ability to balance the push for critical reforms while also preventing a backlash from more conservative elements within the military.
New laws have been passed in quick succession, allowing citizens a range of rights denied since the 1962 coup. Myanmar’s citizens now have labour rights, including the right to strike and form unions, and the right to conduct peaceful protests. Social liberalisation also seems to be gaining momentum, with the emergence of an increasingly vibrant and critical media, and a growing range of independent political and civil society groups. Issues that would have been taboo in the past are now openly discussed in public circles, and NGOs have formed broad alliances while campaigning on issues of national importance, which would have been impossible in early 2011.
The significance of the changes taking place is exemplified by the National League for Democracy’s re-registration as a legitimate contender in the upcoming by-elections. The party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has already expressed her interest in running for a seat in parliament. Additionally, the president and the speaker of the lower house publicly assured US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her landmark visit to Myanmar, that the country’s ongoing changes are ‘real and irreversible’.
The government has also initiated re-engagement with various armed ethnic groups. Though there are still clashes between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Thein Sein recently ordered government troops to pull back from their military offensive against the KIA. In separate negotiations, the Shan State Army-South, one of the largest armed insurgent groups, and another armed rebel Karen faction recently signed official ceasefire agreements with the government. Both groups are already holding discussions with the government on issues such as combating illicit drugs and the establishment of liaison offices.
Alongside these developments, the Obama administration has committed to rebuild the US’ presence in the Asia Pacific. This re-engagement in the region will undoubtedly benefit Myanmar as it seeks closer relations with Western countries and injections of foreign capital. But in order to ensure the country continues its path toward greater transparency, accountability and sustainable development, the international community must move beyond symbolic engagement with the regime, and make concrete policy changes.
The ASEAN bloc has long committed to constructive engagement with the Burmese regime and promised the 2014 ASEAN chair to Naypyidaw. The US also responded favourably in recent meetings, where Hillary Clinton stated that the US would consider upgrading its diplomatic relationship with Myanmar if reforms are maintained. Similarly, Ms Clinton stated that the US would ease restrictions on the World Bank and UN agencies’ mandates in the country. The US and Myanmar must continue to find common ground for dialogue, and the détente between the two countries must be maintained for their mutual benefit.
Looking forward, 2012 will be a critical year for Myanmar as several challenges lie ahead that could derail the recent reforms. First, the military remains the most important political force in the nation. The 2008 constitution guarantees a wide range of special privileges for the military, giving it the legal power to seize control of the government during times of national emergencies. Thus any policy changes in Myanmar in the near future will likely be limited when it comes to matters considered core interests by the military.
Second, despite constructive re-engagement between the government and different insurgent groups, the latter diverge in their interests and vision for Myanmar. A lasting peace is not guaranteed, especially if individual armed militias find themselves deprived of any potential benefits from government reforms.
Third, and in some ways perhaps the nation’s biggest challenge, is the country’s critical underdevelopment. Years of economic mismanagement and isolation have crippled the country on many fronts. National infrastructure is woefully inadequate, with poor transport links, frail communication networks and an archaic financial system. Institutionally, the government has yet to develop a mature bureaucracy at the local and national levels. The country also faces a serious brain drain, with a lack of talent both in the private and public sectors.
As Myanmar heads into 2012, much more needs to be done to ensure recent reforms really are irreversible. All sides must realistically understand the challenges that lie ahead and have the wisdom and restraint to recognise that the fruits of their labours will not come overnight — Myanmar is reforming, but at its own pace. If any one of the stakeholders grows impatient with the process and takes a more confrontational position, this could return the country to the polarising politics of the past, and the current fragile peace and reforms may not last.
By Roger Lee Huang PhD student at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong. East Asia Forum