Reflections from Burma: Beyond the Brink of Change
Preethi Nallu – 08/04/2012
(YANGON, Burma) – A kingdom once described by explorers as the ‘Golden Land’ for its precious resources,Burma has been one of the most under-reported countries in the world for at least two decades, often written off as an impoverished agrarian backwater with a staunch authoritarian rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi, as the country’s famous opposition leader under house arrest and a couple of uprisings, mainly the 1988 student protests and the Saffron Revolution of 2007, both of which were brutally suppressed by the unyielding Junta, were the few topics known and acknowledged with mild discomfort by the international community. For all intents and purposes, Burma went largely ignored by the world.
That is, until a new government took power in 2011 in Naypyidaw claiming an end to 50 years of military rule. ‘Reform’ and ‘Burma’ have now become synonymous terms, with the country being a constant topic of coverage in international media. The new nominally-civilian administration, vested with an ambitious plan of ending decades of economic and informational isolation, has been keen to garner positive publicity and international support.
This year, the Southeast Asian nation featured in media worldwide, more frequently over the course of a few months than it did collectively for more than two decades.
The latest by-elections, held on April 1, 2012, in which Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), secured an overwhelming victory, have brought further attention to a country that has been on the ‘brink’ of change since President Thein Sein’s inaugural speech in April 2011. His vows to bridge economic disparities and reconcile with ethnic minority groups, signalled the start of unprecedented gestures from a leadership with a long legacy of ruling with ‘an iron fist.
Given the country’s past tribulations with revolutions that ended with inconsequence for millions and imprisonment of thousands, coups that further strangled voices of the people, and conflicts that burnt away the past of many, the last few months have borne a breath of fresh air for Burma, also called Myanmar. A country that has been thirsty for basic freedoms and development, that had come a grinding halt for decades, is headed on a new trajectory.
With successful polls that heralded Aung San Suu Kyi’s re-entry to politics, the people finally have cause for extended celebrations. But, is the country yet beyond the brink of change?
Elections and the long road to democracy
Burma’s former capital Yangon was enveloped in Red as supporters gathered around the NLD headquarters, celebrating the landslide victory of their beloved Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi is back after more than two decades of being forced to abstain from politics by the military regime and spending a total of 22 years under house arrest as a prisoner of conscience. Undoubtedly, this event is of historic importance to millions across the country who feel jubilant to see their leader freely roaming about and now victorious – a victory that has been ‘welcomed’ by President Thein Sein.
The day after elections, Suu Kyi was optimistic during her victory speech at the NLD headquarters.
“We hope that there will be more emphasis on the rule of the people in the everyday politics of the country. We also hope that we will be able to go further on the road towards national reconciliation,” she remarked to a ecstatic crowd that numbered tens of thousands.
While the polls that ended to the general satisfaction of international observers are being considered the ‘big litmus test’ of the government’s intentions to change, the results will not sway the power balance in the capital, Naypyidaw. Forty-five out 664 seats in the Parliament were contested, 43 won by the NLD, which translates to roughly 6 percent of the total membership, out of which Suu Kyi will have one seat. The impact will, of course, be proportional.
Despite the historic victory, Suu Kyi remained somber in her assessment of the months and years to come. The NLD had a “long way to go,” she reminded her audience.
Suu Kyi and her party will need to delicately balance the act between challenging the status-quo whilst maintaining their support base in the Parliament. This will require rationing their reform agenda (especially in relation to constitutional amendments), to prevent a backlash from the hardliners, while advocating for greater capacity building for run-down institutions and continuing to point out endemic problems such as corruption.
The opposition’s work will be inadvertently affected by the international community’s new found interest in the resource rich nation.
While the main sanctioning entities, especially the US and EU seem eager to lift sanctions on Burma, the main question is whether the country is equipped to handle immediate large scale foreign investment and how to best empower the middle and lower economic segments of the country.
Development and Sanctions
To enter Burma at this juncture of a new direction dispels many stereotypical notions. The country that was cherished by travellers for its ‘trapped in a different era’ image,
might not bear true for much longer, with development being a central pre-occupation of the current administration. Glistening pagodas surrounded by emerging skyscrapers, colonial era buildings being renovated to suit a modern cityscape – the process has already begun – albeit, limited to urban centres.
A prime motivation for the administration in initiating wide ranging reforms has been to impress upon the main sanctioning entities (US, EU, Australia, Canada) the need to lift sanctions. The EU is currently reviewing sanctions on developmental assistance for the government and tax subsidies for manufacturers.
“I congratulate the government and people of Myanmar on the conduct of the by-elections on April 1. We will continue to support the ongoing reforms in Myanmar and look forward to developing a new and cooperative relationship as these go forward,” said Catherine Ashton, High Representative for EU Foreign Affairs
The international sanctions regime has indeed created a vacuum in the country that prevented important sectors such as the manufacturing industry from growing, unlike Burma’s neighbours such as Thailand and Indonesia, that steadily benefitted from tax-subsidies on imported goods.
But, given country’s strong military presence, that continues to receive significant funding, (currently estimated at 14 percent of the budget), re-engaging in terms of developmental assistance with a military dominated government is problematic. It might prove counter-productive in terms wheedling better behaviour from the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces, that continue to target civilians in battle-riddled regions. At the same time, the government’s legal and financial institutions are in shambles and in much need of repair for reforms to be effectively implemented.
The main ethical quandary is how to better equip the government in adhering to rule of law, corporate social responsibility norms and environmental protection standards. Should lifting of sanctions, especially on developmental assistance, lead in order to enable the country in rebuilding its infrastructure, or should they be delayed to cajole the government into better preparedness for large-scale foreign investment?
The ultimate concern should be whether a majority in the country, especially those living in rural areas, detached from the ‘state’ and its services, will benefit from such an opening.
‘Human Rights’ for all
As Suu kyi, prepares to leave for Naypyidaw, when Parliament re-convenes in June of this year, there is a region of the country that has been untouched by the polls. In Kachin state where a conflict has been raging for almost a year, claiming 75,000 refugees so far, polls have been indefinitely postponed by the government due to the unstable security condition. But the plight of those living in the conflict regions goes beyond being able to exercise their right to vote. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been under constant threat, with lives, livelihoods, homes and property destroyed amidst the fighting.
The conflict in Kachin State started in June 2011, when a 17 year ceasefire ended between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic rebel group, Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The continued fighting in this resource-laden area denotes a significant obstacle to starting comprehensive ceasefire talks between the military government and 11 major ethnic armed groups that started this year as part of the ‘roadmap to reform.’ Contrary to the popular misnomer of a singular country, with a homogenous population, subjugated by a brutal military, Burma is ethnically diverse with135 classified minority groups, most of which have sought autonomy and self-rule since the inception of a Burmese state in 1948.
Unlike the Karen, Shan, Mon and other ethnic groups who have been able to sign initial agreements with the state military this year, despite several rounds of negotiations, the KIA and the State forces have failed to achieve even a tentative truce. Thus, peace has eluded the region so far.
While the Kachin conflict is a particular case where different parties’ greed for natural resources in the region, Kachin leaders’ disillusionment over political exclusion and the specific dynamics between the key negotiators are leading factors, it is also proof that the Burmese Military as the most powerful institution in the country is most resistant to change. As explained by those documenting human rights violations in this region, the tactics of the military, particularly the direct targeting of civilians and deliberate expulsion campaigns and burning down of villages has not changed.
Below is an excerpt from Human Rights Watch’s latest report, Untold Miseries, that conducted over 100 interviews of civilians in Kachin war-torn areas:
Soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations for information about KIA insurgents, and raped women. They also used antipersonnel land mines and conscripted forced labour. Children as young as 14 have been tortured and forced to serve as army porters, including on the front lines.
According to the report, the KIA has also used child soldiers and planted land mines in villages. Caught amidst this perpetual state of battle are civilians in dilapidated shelters with no means of returning to safety and an impending monsoon season.
Expanding media landscape
A country that was previously compared to Orwell’s 1984, with Burmese intelligence officials acting as ‘thought police’ in public places and spying on those committing ‘thoughtcrime,’ Burma has witnessed significant advancement in terms of freedom of speech.
Campaign posters of Aung San Suu Kyi alongside her father General Aung San, considered ‘father of modern Burma,’ and NLD flags waving through rallies – it was an atmosphere that echoed the elections campaigns of 1990. Suu Kyi who was persona non grata in the press throughout her house arrest, now regularly makes the front covers of local publications and is able to write opinion pieces made available inside the country.
This is considerable and rapid development for Burma, where a year ago, the state publication ‘New Light of Myanmar’ carried messages on its back page that called the BBC, Voice of America and exiled publications as enemies “sowing hatred among the people” and “designed to cause troubles.”
In comparison to such Orwellian propaganda, the range of political discussions, including criticism of the government, has greatly expanded in local media.
The latest evidence of an evolving media landscape was the number of foreign journalists who were officially allowed inside the country to cover the by-elections. Journalists equipped with cameras, photographing crowds gathered at the NLD headquarters in Yangon, reporters recording live ‘from the scene’ and tourists filming freely: it was a novel sight to ordinary citizens who posed for the camera, unfazed, shouting out chants in support of Suu Kyi and all the more confident that their country is changing.
Sustainable development for the majority: it is the current buzz word for civil society organisations focused on Burma, from grassroots groups to those at Rio+20, led by the UN.
With the international community-at-large zeroing in on a country, that has been little-known for decades, there are information gaps that need to be filled. While Burma/Myanmar is a member of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, expected to take place in June 2012, the UN system is lacking years of information on land resources, health indicators, rural development and financial indicators of the country. This is mainly due to decades of a deliberate strategy by the previous military dictatorship in preventing NGOs and the UN from accessing large parts of the country, especially ethnic minority areas.
Now is a good time for the UN and its agencies to maximise the benefits of a widening humanitarian space to better understand the needs of a country entering a new era of development.