Myanmar (Burma) has been hitting the headlines in recent months, sometimes for good reasons (chairing the ASEAN summit for example) and sometimes not so good (break-outs of religious violence). Since 2011 when President Thein Sein announced long-awaited political reforms, onlookers have been hopeful that Myanmar would start to emerge from the dark days of the military junta to a prosperous and democratic future. So three years later, and with less than a year until the next general election, what is the health status of Myanmar?
Open any current article on Myanmar’s political reforms and the first thing you’ll read is about the issue of changes to the constitution that would allow the country’s most beloved politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to become president. In 2008, realising that no matter how often they shoved her under house arrest Suu Kyi remained a threat to them, the military junta decided to create Clause 59(f) of the constitution, which barred from the presidency anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizens. Suu Kyi was finally released in 2010, and went on to enter parliament after winning a by-election landslide in 2012, raising hopes that one day she could ascend to the top job. Trouble is, the committee which was charged with canvassing public opinion on the matter has reported that most people apparently don’t want to see the constitution changed. The fact that the committee is dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), however, suggests foul play: the USDP is a military party who would probably prefer not to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) take power. While it is almost inevitable the constitution will have to be changed, this could be a more drawn out process than Suu Kyi’s supporters would like. Whether it will be done in time for the 2015 elections remains to be seen.
Slow but steady?
In other areas too, Myanmar’s reforms have often been frustratingly slow – and in some cases appear to be moving backward. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released since 2011, but more remain imprisoned and yet more have been added to the ranks recently. While government censorship has relaxed somewhat, media and press freedom still has a way to go (interestingly enough, blogging is taking off in Myanmar in a big way, as people feel more able to comment on political and social issues). Educational reform has only just begun and changes to the judicial system and rule of law have not even started. Economically there has been excitement amongst international developers about the opening up of the untapped resources of Myanmar, with the country receiving $4.1 billion foreign investment in the fiscal year 2013–2014. But corruption is notoriously high, with Myanmar ranking 157 out of 177 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. This is leading much of the population to worry about whether international investment is going to actually benefit them or not.
Marring any progress in Myanmar’s reforms has been the increase in religious persecution and violence, particularly against the country’s Muslim minority. As recently as July 2014 riots flared in Mandalay for several days, with two people killed and much destruction of property. Often this violence has been fuelled by rumours and bias – unsurprising in a country where an authoritarian regime has engendered ignorance and lack of contact between those of different faiths. Tension between Buddhists and Muslims are further complicated by issues of ethnicity. Myanmar has a long and torturous history of ethnic-based conflict. Fears about issues of national identity and distribution of political power are fuelling inter-group conflict, as some Buddhist groups worry about the erosion of the status of their religion. Meanwhile, the concept that to be a citizen of Myanmar is to be ‘Burmese’ and Buddhist is challenged by minority groupings in the country.
The good news is that Myanmar’s chairmanship of the ASEAN summit appears to have gone well, and marks the country’s growing contribution to regional and international affairs. In fact, the theme of this year’s meeting – ‘Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community’ – could not have been more apt. Chairing the ASEAN has been a chance for Myanmar to demonstrate its leadership abilities in the region. It’s also a significant step in the country’s transformation from the repressive days of the military junta when the country was closed off to all outside influence, to a more open, inclusive nation. The opening up of Myanmar will be continued with the increase in foreign tourism – 5 million tourists are expected to visit the country in 2015, bringing with them not only increased revenue but different cultures and perspectives. Increased foreign contact and international scrutiny can only be a positive thing for the country’s human rights issues too.
It’s probably much as to be expected given Myanmar’s history of repression and authoritarian rule: the appetite of some for reform far exceeds the speed in which progress is being made. There is a long way yet to go, but considering where the country has started from, any sign of reform has to be applauded. Much is now going to depend on the coming months – and in particular the general election. If the reform process continues to advance steadily, then Myanmar should move into a new era of democracy and prosperity. However, if progress stalls there is a real danger of the military re-asserting itself and the country sliding back to the dark old days.