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A Whisper of Hope Rises in Myanmar Again

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012
bagan twilight, myanmar

Myanmar today is an isolated political state. Years of international economic sanctions in protest against the suppressive rule there has led to severe economic struggle for citizens of this ethnically-divided nation. However, recent news from Myanmar indicates a whisper of hope that far-reaching changes could finally be coming soon. In August of this year, the politically suppressed opposition leader, the much acclaimed and high-profile 1991 Nobel Peace Laurete Aung San Suu Kyi, was invited for a personal discussion with President Thein Sein. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of slain Aung San, who was the first Burmese ethnic leader to head the transitional government of Myanmar (then Burma) after the British withdrew as colonial rulers.

The next step brings the country toward an important but contentious political change, to say the least. The traditionally pro-China government in Myanmar is now headed by an ex-general (Sein), and it has struck a different note towards traditional political relations with its giant neighbor to the north. For one thing, President Sein has defiantly struck down the construction of the Myitsone dam.

Being built over the River Irrawaddy, the dam had the blessings of the Chinese government and was backed by it. Now the sudden move to put a stop to the construction of the dam definitely symbolizes a political shift, and it is perhaps predictive of the seachanges happening in Myanmar.

That this defiance by the present rulers of Myanmar would rankle the Chinese authorities is an understatement. However, this growing Myanmar independence and attempt to implement more pro-people projects is not a flash-in-the pan occurrence. Another significant political change has been the growing inclination of the Myanmar rulers to listen, increasingly, to the opinion of its own people and to accede to Western pressure.

For years, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest, despite being a popular elected leader. President Thein Sein’s government has now grown more lenient towards Suu Kyi. In the last few weeks, she has gained greater personal freedom of movement and is being permitted to meet foreign visitors.

Furthermore, changes in the country’s social and legal climate have been introduced. New laws now permit workers to form umbrella organizations and trade unions. Such reform can be seen to represent the greater openness the present regime is trying to establish in the country. Yet such changes are not new to Myanmar. Earlier in the mid-1990s, there was widespread political shifting that gave rise to the hope that a more democratic governance would emerge. History proved otherwise, however, thanks largely to hardliners within the regime.

Again, in 2002-03, there was increasing possibility of political amenity as talks between Suu Kyi and the government looked to improve. However, this too proved futile, as rulers failed to bring in substantial reforms to install the popularly-elected government. Instead, under pressure from hardliners from within, the backlash only resulted in reinstating the status quo, ensuring further suffering of the people of Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Ethnic Diversity and Military Dominance Continue

to Influence Political Changes Burma was a dynastic royalty until its colonization by Great Britain in the late 19th century. It was part of British India up until 1937 and later it continued to be ruled by the British, officially as a Princely State. However, after the Second World War, Burma was left splintered between the Japanese supporting ethnic population and an anti-British population. After the British withdrew from the region, a transitional parliamentary government was instituted under the leadership of Aung San, the popular political leader who led the Myanmar struggle against British Raj. He was assassinated by rival leaders, however, and soon in 1948, a political rival named Sao Shwe Thaik declared himself president and renamed his country as the Union of Burma. This young nation with close to twenty minor ethnic groups and one predominant ethnic group, the Bamar, was never able to achieve political consensus, and it could not unify to establish a good government. There were widespread ethnic clashes and people continued to struggle under divisive politics.

By 1962, a Burmese Socialist military regime was established when General Ne Win affected a successful coup and established the economic policy of autarky, or economic isolation.

Despite democratic elections and popular leaders like Suu Kyi being chosen to head the governments, the military has continued to play a larger role in ruling Myanmar. Now with economic compulsions and growing Chinese influence, military rulers are now loosening the reins to allow fresh changes that could well charter new political and economic growth in Myanmar.

New Changes to Stay, Say Opposition

Political analysts, studying the significant political shifts in Myanmar, predict that these changes are no longer an olive branch by the quasi-civilian government. Rather, these pro-liberal changes are in reality the result of economic compulsions and a strategy to break free from the impending dominance of China. The country’s opposition members themselves believe that, this time around, these changes could well be the beginnings of better, more independent days for Myanmar.

The economic sanctions imposed by Western governments to bring pressure on the military rulers to bring in reforms in the country actually backfired in the early years. It practically pushed the military leaders, or the junta, to seek Chinese support. However, maintaining relations with China have come at a cost for Myanmar over the years.

China has gradually increased its presence and influence in the economy, and both the political regime as well as the people of Myanmar now resent this Chinese presence.

As Myanmar’s citizenry continue to be subject to yearly economic struggles, China’s hugely successful economy has become a source of resentment for them.

Next Move for Myanmar

As the regime continues with various reforms, such as the greater freedom of movement for political opposition leaders, Myanmar will require assistance on several fronts from other nations.

As evident by the present government’s pro-change moves, the economic sanctions imposed by Western countries have finally begun to pressurize the military rulers. It appears now that constitutional reforms need to be made.

Yet a highly controversial law was introduced in the 2008, in which the military was given complete powers of final say on all constitutional laws to be implemented. The future of Myanmar’s growth will hinge on this law. As long as it continues to be in effect, there is scope for hardliners in the regime to fall back to old oppressive ways. This law has also been the cause of the long-standing lack of a well-defined political consensus.

As censorship rules are gradually being rolled back, however, there is increasing scope for journalists and even Aung San Suu Kyi herself to publish articles. Websites, which were formerly blocked in Myanmar, are now accessible, and many are truly bringing in positive changes.

From all of this, it can be seen that the next move for the socialist military regime will be to introduce political normalization.

Political Normalization: the Final Step

The steps towards normalization are several, and they are steeped in complexity. First of all, the release of political prisoners, like the National League for Democracy (NLD) members who were imprisoned after their refusal to participate in 2010 elections, is the most important step forward. Secondly, a defined role for Suu Kyii needs to be determined. For many years now she has been the de facto Myanmar leader in the people’s eyes, and she has carried the legacy of her father Aun Sung admirably. The future of Myanmar now depends in part on what role the quasi-civilian government will offer her.

Political Will is Present

The present regime has to now show that it is pro-change. It has to establish its credibility and follow it up with the implementation of all of its commitments. Thein Sein’s government and its recent policy changes are indicative that the political will to march towards change is indeed present. Defying the Chinese government in any sense would have been impossible when the previous President was in power. Thein Sein’s actions, however, are indicative that pro-change is the only option for Myanmar’s success.

Achieving Economic Independence will Lead to Growth

The many tentacles of China’s giganticeconomic growth penetrating into Myanmar’s oil resources, minerals, industries and most core economic segments pres ent a rather overpowering obstacle for Myanmar’s indepence to overcome.

Yet looking West for stronger political ties and at its immediate neighborsto maintain a political balance in the region is a positive option for Myanmar as ittakes baby steps to emerge as a sovereigndemocratic nation.

The future of Myanmar’s growth lies in being able to forge greater consensus amongst the various ethnic factions. It also needs to highlight its traditional role as an important trading center of the region.

Nations across the world are waiting for Myanmar to re-emerge from an oppressive regime and achieve economic liberty. Once the current Myanmar leadership is able to prove its positive intentions for reform, rollback of economic sanctions can be expected. This will eventually lead to economic aid from global organizations to help it build back its economy.

Developing the country’s physical infrastructure is the next big obstacle, andit will have to be tackled with regionaland international help.

Myanmar’s strategic location does give it great potential as a key-player in the re- gion. If it is to sustain the present whis- pers of changes and aim to implement reforms in a phased manner, it will one day soon achieve the ultimate goal of complete democracy.

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