Asia Briefing N°118 7 Mar 2011
The November 2010 elections in Myanmar were not free and fair and the country has not escaped authoritarian rule. Predictably, in such a tightly controlled poll, the regime’s own Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a landslide victory leaving the military elite still in control. Together with the quarter of legislative seats reserved for soldiers, this means there will be little political space for opposition members in parliament. The new government that has been formed, and which will assume power in the coming weeks, also reflects the continued dominance of the old order with the president and one of the two vice presidents drawn from its ranks and a number of cabinet ministers recycled.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to conclude that nothing has changed. The top two leaders of the former military regime have stepped aside, and a new generation has taken over. A new constitution has come into force, which fundamentally reshapes the political landscape, albeit in a way that ensures the continued influence of the military. A number of technocrats have been brought into the cabinet, and at the local level ethnic groups now have at least some say in the governance of their affairs.
These changes are unlikely to translate into dramatic reforms in the short term, but they provide a new governance context, improving the prospects for incremental reform. This moment of relative change in a situation that has been deadlocked for twenty years provides a chance for the international community to encourage the government to move in the direction of greater openness and reform. But this opportunity can only be seized if the West changes its failed policies of sanctions and isolation. These policies are counterproductive: they have a negative impact on the population and on the prospects for dialogue and reconciliation – and by reinforcing the siege mentality of Myanmar’s leadership, they undermine the chances that the new generation of leaders will break with the isolationist and authoritarian direction of the previous regime.
Improved policies must start with the recognition that sanctions have had counterproductive effects and caused ordinary people to suffer, and have impeded the country’s development. To redress this, restrictions on development assistance should be immediately lifted and levels of aid increased. Restrictions on technical assistance from international financial institutions should also be removed. These bodies should be encouraged to work on pressing concerns such as poverty alleviation, social and economic policy reform, education, and capacity building. Restrictions that hold back the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other UN agencies should be lifted. Broad-based economic sanctions such as those imposed by the U.S. on imports and the EU’s denial of trade privileges should also go.
A new approach urgently needs to be adopted, one that provides much greater support for Myanmar’s people and for the socio-economic reforms that are essential for improving their lives, while convincing the leadership that a renormalisation of relations with the West is possible if they embark on a process of significant political reform. In its reporting over recent years, Crisis Group has set out some of the elements of such an approach: structured regional and international engagement; a normalisation of aid relations; opportunities to promote reform and greater openness at a key moment of political transition; and giving greater priority to peaceful resolution of the ethnic issue.
Jakarta/Brussels, 7 March 2011