Saturday, January 5, 2013

Myanmar: two steps forward, one step backward

Myanmar’s continued progress toward implementing its multi-party democracy agenda in 2012 might be characterised as ‘two steps forward, one step backward’.

Politically, the country’s continuing transition toward full democratisation was framed by the by-elections in April, which finessed the seating in the nation’s parliament of the National League for Democracy’s iconic leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; and the highly successful visit on 19 November by President Barack Obama, the first-ever visit to the country by a US president. In between, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited the US and Europe, and Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, visited the US. These widely publicised events formed part of the fabric of Myanmar’s ‘coming out’ of the dark years of its military dictatorship, and its re-integration into the international community.

Myanmar’s moves, since the national elections in 2010, toward implementing internationally recognised civil and political rights for its citizens received some measure of reward by these series of visits. A further step in Myanmar’s re-integration into the international community was taken when ASEAN formally prepared the way for Myanmar to assume the presidency of the association in 2014. However, the reforms affecting the civil and political fabric, while important, are still rather superficial, and major steps need to be taken to bring about meaningful improvement in the quality of life for the majority of its citizens.

The implementation of initial civil and political rights that enable citizens to vote in national elections for a civilianised government have seen many of the sanctions imposed by the international community after 1988 lifted or put in abeyance. A poor fisherwoman from the Delta now has plans to run for national office when the next elections are held, a formerly unheard of vision. While these political reforms should not be minimised, they also should not obscure the need to undertake a thoroughgoing reform of the legal system and the regulations governing the bureaucracy. The resort to violence by police against protestors at a copper mine in the north outside Monywa in November is a stark reminder of how skin deep the implementation of civil and political rights is in the country. Nevertheless, one also should not overlook the amazing backflip by police who went on to apologise to protestors, formerly an unheard of outcome.

Recognition of the urgency of economic reform as a means of improving the quality of life of the majority of citizens underpinned the October reshuffle of the cabinet by President Thein Sein and the related moves to streamline the staffing in the president’s office. This reshuffle brought to prominence ministers with sound economic credentials. If Myanmar’s political reforms are to be sustained, key economic policies will need to ensure that the benefits of democracy are spread evenly throughout society.

An important aspect of this will be re-skilling the younger generation and facilitating access to quality education, which will support the country’s economic development. In recognition of this nexus between education and economic development, Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, during his brief visit to Myanmar in June, announced a major upgrade in Australia’s aid program targeted at assisting the improvement in Myanmar’s primary education.

This, however, is but one aspect; similar major contributions need to be made to improve all other aspects of Myanmar’s education system — middle school, high school, tertiary and technical education — to support its fledgling democracy. At present, children in many parts of the country do not have safe access to a middle school, meaning, in practical terms, that their education stops at primary school level. In recognition of this need, the US and key American universities have embarked on major technical assistance programs in strategic areas of education and health. These are long-term investments; it will take several decades for Myanmar to redress all the socio-economic aspects of its reform program.

The problems with the political, socio-economic and cultural agendas are encapsulated in the continuing violence in several ethnic minority areas — Rakhine in the South West, Kachin in the north and in the Karen regions on the eastern border. In June, communal violence in Rakhine between disenfranchised Muslim Rohingya and ethnic Buddhists led to the destruction of many communities, hundreds of deaths and large numbers of Rohingya seeking refuge in Bangladesh, which has closed its borders off to them. The UNHCR has set up a program to try to address some of the atrocities committed by both sides; and the government has set up a commission of inquiry. Similar violence in Kachin state also seems unable to be resolved, with claims of secret massacres and bad faith on both sides. On the eastern border, activities reminiscent of the long-running civil war seem to be resurgent, although this is not widely broadcast in the media.

The unresolved problems in the ethnic minority areas remain one of the most urgent issues for the government to address. In December, a mooted visit to Australia by President Thein Sein was suddenly cancelled, a sign that his presence was urgently required in the country. Myanmar’s democratic transition in 2012 proceeded apace, but not without a backward step.

Helen James is an Associate Professor at the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University.
This is part of a special feature on 2012 in review and the year ahead. East Asia Forum

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