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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

Winds of change in Myanmar

Special to The Japan Times

KYOTO — Myanmar's President Thein Sein recently ended his first ever visit to the United States. In late September, he was in New York to participate in the annual United Nations General Assembly. Afterward, he had a much anticipated discussion with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Thein Sein also has a chance to catch up with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Suu Kyi, too, was invited by the U.S. Congress to receive one of the highest awards ever given to a foreigner. Apparently, Suu Kyi now has become the de facto spokeswoman of the Thein Sein government.

The mood was upbeat. Thein Sein and Suu Kyi worked in unison to request that the U.S. government abolish its decades-old economic sanctions against Myanmar. As expected, the U.S., once adopting a hard-line stance against Myanmar's brutal military regime, gleefully applauded the endeavors of the Thein Sein government in implementing serious political reforms. Finally, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to lift almost all the sanctions, including the ban of Myanmar's imports to the U.S.

In Myanmar, signs of democracy have emerged. Hundreds of political prisoners have been set free. Myanmar's media has received more freedom, although it is still controlled by the state. The government is allowing trade unions to form. Environmental and human rights organizations have sprung up all over the country. People have come to believe that with democratic reforms their lives might be about to change for the better.

But are the changes inside Myanmar and the newly improved U.S.-Myanmar relations something too good to be true?

Admittedly, the opening up process in Myanmar, which has been ongoing in all political, economic and social spheres, has been impressive. Some observers like to describe Myanmar as a "born again" nation. Some say that it is a period of renaissance for the country, which had been under a military rule for half a century. Less than five years ago, any talk of a "democratic Myanmar" would have been viewed as a fantasy. Today, with changes fast taking place in Myanmar, optimism seems to have become a part of how the international community is redefining the political situation there.

Thein Sein has confidently declared that the current reform program will be irreversible, pointing to the many new policy initiatives from the state, the apparent sincerity of elite actors about the need for consensus on democratic transition, and growing popular sentiment for social and political change. All these seem to attest that Myanmar is firmly on a democratization path.

If this trend continues, there will be ample political and economic opportunities. Already, many countries have been readjusting their policies toward Myanmar, including Japan, the U.S., and members of the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Whether the transformation in Myanmar is real or bogus will be a crucial question for these countries as they come into contact with the new realities in Myanmar.

Amid optimism, some observers are less confident. A group of experts at Australian National University (ANU) recently listed a number of serious obstacles that could potentially delay Myanmar's democratization. These include a resurgent civil war, communal conflict and constraints on the burgeoning news media.

The goal of national reconciliation is frustrated by the impunity that the army enjoys. And although the NLD swept the by-elections in 2012, the party continues to be dominated by a single personality and has not yet built a platform upon which to represent itself as a viable alternative to the military-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which currently holds an overwhelming number of seats in the national legislature.

International capital is returning, but not at a pace or in a manner as to satisfy demands for immediate improvements in living standards and employment opportunities. The gap between the rich and the poor is not narrowing. Meanwhile, state institutions, including the bureaucracy, courts and police, continue to function much as they have done for over two decades. Steps to effect change from the capital Naypyidaw have, for most people, yet to bring tangible results. Hopes are high, but so too is a skepticism born of several decades of military dictatorship and the memories of earlier, lost moments of promise.

Therefore, a group of ANU experts has posed a key question: is Myanmar democratizing or is it moving toward a new form of authoritarianism, perhaps one more consonant with other contemporary authoritarian regimes in Asia?

Moreover, there is another problem current facing Myanmar: ethnic minorities. The government has long been engaging in conflicts with some of its ethnic minorities, which make up a third of the population. Peace and stability will come to Myanmar only when it settles the disputes with these minority groups. Many observers continue to have misperceptions about the political conflict because most of the focus has been on the clashes between the military and the opposition led by Suu Kyi. Clearly, this is illusionary.

Conflicts between the state and ethnic minorities represent a serious hurdle to the process of democratization in Myanmar, as shown by the recent violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslim Rohinyas in Arakan state. Unless the government begins to tackle this issue seriously, Myanmar's political reforms could stagnate.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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