Asia Briefing N°127 22 Sep 2011
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Overview in Burmese
Six months after the transition to a new, semi-civilian government, major changes are taking place in Myanmar. In the last two months, President Thein Sein has moved rapidly to begin implementing an ambitious reform agenda first set out in his March 2011 inaugural address. He is reaching out to long-time critics of the former regime, proposing that differences be put aside in order to work together for the good of the country. Aung San Suu Kyi has seized the opportunity, meeting the new leader in Naypyitaw and emerging with the conviction that he wants to achieve positive change. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) seems convinced that Myanmar is heading in the right direction and may soon confer upon it the leadership of the organisation for 2014. This would energise reformers inside the country with real deadlines to work toward as they push for economic and political restructuring. Western policymakers should react to the improved situation and be ready to respond to major steps forward, such as a significant release of political prisoners.
In a speech on 19 August, the president made clear that his goal is to build a modern and developed democratic nation. His initial views on what steps are needed were set out in his wide-ranging and refreshingly honest inaugural speech less than six months ago. Some observers have dismissed such talk as “just words”, but in a context of long-term political and economic stagnation they are much more than that. After 50 years of autocratic rule, they show strong signs of heralding a new kind of political leadership in Myanmar – setting a completely different tone for governance in the country and allowing discussions and initiatives that were unthinkable only a few months ago.
These words are now being put into practice. In recent weeks a series of concrete steps have been taken to begin implementing the president’s reform agenda, aimed at reinvigorating the economy, reforming national politics and improving human rights. The political will appears to exist to bring fundamental change, but success will require much more than a determined leader. Resistance can be expected from hardliners in the power structure and spoilers with a vested interest in the status quo. Weak technical and institutional capacities also impose serious constraints on a country emerging from decades of isolation and authoritarianism. It is urgent that those best placed to provide the necessary advice and assistance – the West and multilateral institutions – are allowed to step forward to provide it.
Some observers are still urging caution, putting the focus not on how much is changing but on how much has yet to change. To be sure, a successful reform process is far from guaranteed. There are many fundamental steps that still must be taken, including healing deep ethnic divisions and overcoming the legacy of decades of armed conflict – something the government has yet to fully grapple with – together with addressing adequately ongoing allegations of brutality by the armed forces; the release of political prisoners; restoration of basic civil liberties; and the further lifting of media censorship.
Western countries have indicated that they stand ready to respond to positive developments. At a very minimum, this should include a less cautious political stance and the encouragement of multilateral agencies – including the International Financial Institutions and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – to do as much as possible under their existing mandate restrictions. Similarly, member states should support the broadest interpretation of the EU Council decision on Myanmar rather than the most cautious. As Naypyitaw sets its new course, these small political steps would help to facilitate the provision of ideas that could add momentum to the reforms now underway.
There are already indications that key benchmarks many in the West have insisted on may soon be reached. Military legislators have, for example, supported an opposition motion in the lower house calling on the president to grant a general amnesty for political prisoners. If such a dramatic policy shift occurs, it would need to be reciprocated by those who earlier authorised sanctions. Failure to do so, or to shift the goalposts by replacing old demands with new ones, would undermine the credibility of these policies and diminish what little leverage the West holds. Internal progress on human rights and economic reforms that benefit the country’s citizens should be acknowledged and supported by the international community.
Crisis Group has long held the view that sanctions on Myanmar – targeted and non-targeted – are counterproductive, encouraging a siege mentality among its leadership and harming its mostly poor population. The greater the pace of change, the weaker the rationale becomes for continuing them – or adding more. Many problems remain. There is ample evidence that the army continues to employ brutal counter-insurgency strategies, and in the absence of domestic accountability, calls for an international commission will remain. But it is far from clear that such a body, even if one could be established, would be the most effective way to address abuses at this time or whether its impact would rather be to cause retrenchment in Naypyitaw.
Jakarta/Brussels, 22 September 2011