The pace of the reform process in Myanmar has surprised many and left some doubting, but most importantly it has raised the hopes of locals and foreign specialists, who anticipate that the country will slough off its history of repression and emerge at last from decades of military dictatorship.
Since the 2010 national elections, the international community has responded positively to the wide-sweeping reform agenda of the new president, Thein Sein. The success of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the April 2012 by-elections, for example, was followed by the long-awaited seating in parliament of veteran democracy campaigner and head of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi. This is a giant leap forward because since 2010 and until the April by-elections, the NLD had been de-registered for not meeting Myanmar’s electoral laws. Its re-registration and electoral success are the culmination of a political reform process that has been years in the making.
Coinciding with these formal political developments, since early 2011 President Thein Sein’s elected government has been moving steadily to implement major reforms to address the human rights abuses for which the country is infamous. These initiatives have included the release of political prisoners, establishment of a Human Rights Commission, commitment to the principle of a free press, repeal of censorship laws and institution of a Myanmar Press Council. Because the new government has also committed to the principle of freedom of association, it is no longer necessary to seek official permission to hold a gathering greater than five persons.
Sceptics consider these as merely superficial moves to win the support of the US and key Western countries. Much remains to be done to give real impact to these reforms, yet there is no doubt that ordinary citizens across Myanmar welcome the new approach to governing their country. There is a new air of optimism and hope for the future as locals are able to travel more, access more news and information, and see more opportunities for participating in the governance structures of their country.
As of mid-2012, the new government has ticked some of the most important boxes of political reform: a new constitution, a bicameral parliament (albeit with 25 per cent of seats reserved for military personnel), national elections, the NLD seated in parliament, freedom of the press and freedom of association. In return, the US, EU and Australia have moved to lift or ‘suspend’ most of the sanctions against the country. The suspension of sanctions is part of the essential mix of measures required to address the dire poverty that afflicts the majority of Myanmar’s citizens, some 70 per cent of whom derive their livelihoods from agriculture. Industrialisation has not yet come to Myanmar, despite the vast wealth beginning to flow into the country from its oil and gas reserves.
Reforming political governance must lead to better quality of life, greater rule of law, higher standards of living, more equitable distribution of the nation’s resources, higher standards of education and better health services. Upholding human rights necessarily requires those in positions of trust to respect a suite of rights, including economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. All of these have been violated in Myanmar by successive governments since independence in 1948. Redressing this history will take a major socio-economic, as well as socio-political, set of public policy initiatives.
Not least among these is a total renovation of the judiciary and the legal system, which includes both the system of criminal justice, and property rights and common law more broadly. If the rule of law is a major cornerstone of democratic governance and respect for human rights, instituting an independent and incorruptible judiciary must be a high priority. High on the reformers’ agenda are measures to address corruption throughout society, from the criminal justice system to the routine of ‘buying’ employment and examination results. Widespread corruption may not seem to be in the same category of human rights abuses as those carried out against ethnic minority peoples or the monks who protested in 2007, but they impugn the socio-economic rights of citizens to a similar degree, preventing them from achieving their capabilities and frequently causing many to emigrate in search of a better life.
Redressing widespread human rights abuses at all levels will require a concerted economic reform program including major investment from abroad, liberalisation of investment laws and a revamped education system that rewards merit. Empirical political science has shown that there is a direct correlation between economic prosperity, democratic governance, upholding the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Economic prosperity does not, in itself, presage an evolutionary trajectory toward democratic governance, but it is certain that poverty breeds the conditions in which repression, dictatorship and corruption flourish — and that all of these are precursors of human rights abuse.
Improving human rights and maintaining the reform momentum is a giant task for the Myanmar government, the international community and those Myanmar watchers committed to the advancement of this beautiful country, and will require a good mix of cooperation, patience and commitment to continuing both political and economic policy reforms.
Helen James is Associate Professor at the Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute, the Australian National University.