Wed 5 Sep 2012
Filed under: Opinion
Looking at Myanmar’s reforms, some cheer, some donate, some invest, and some remain skeptical.
The cheerleaders, donors and investors have all optimistically accepted the government’s line that real democratic change is taking root in historically military-run Myanmar. The skeptics, on the other hand believe that the military-cum-civilian government is merely implementing its old “seven-step roadmap” program, which was drawn and implemented by the former military regime.
Among Myanmar’s former military, now civilian, politicians, the roadmap is an open secret, one that the international community either missed or has simply ignored. Previously opposition critics and foreign observers strongly criticized the “seven-step roadmap”, including its one-sided constitution, forced national referendum, and rigged general election that gave the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) a dominant democratic mandate.
All of this was forgotten after President Thein Sein’s government released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political prisoners, suspended the controversial, China-backed Myintsone Dam project, and eased some restrictions on media and basic civil liberties.
The “seven-step roadmap” has taken a long, circuitous route. Its first step, a national convention that began in 1993, was suspended for years, restarted in 2003 and finally completed 14 years later in September 2007.
Step two, the implementation of a process to allow the emergence of a “genuine and disciplined democratic system” was completed soon after the first step and quickly followed by the third, the writing a draft constitution, which was completed in October 2007.
In May 2008, despite the widespread devastation, displacement and death caused by the Cyclone Nargis disaster, the military regime forcibly carried out a controversial national referendum, the fourth step on the roadmap. At that time, the military regime initially banned international aid and relief workers from entering Myanmar to assist with humanitarian relief efforts. Nonetheless, the constitution was overwhelmingly adopted through the referendum.
A general election, conducted on November 7, 2010, represented step five. The USDP, the military’s former mass organization which was converted into a political party, won 76.5% of the new parliaments’ seats and elected Thein Sein, the junta’s former prime minister, as president. Independent observers criticized the election as neither free nor fair due to vote buying, ballot cheating and voter intimidation, among other allegations.
The sixth step convened the new elected bodies and the seventh created government organs instituted by the legislative body.
Ex-junta chief Senior General Than Shwe made sure through the seven step plan that he and his family would after his retirement be safe from retribution for his regime’s abuses. Under the 2008 constitution, no legal action may be taken against him and his soldiers who served in the previous ruling junta. Articles 443 and 445 of the constitution say specifically that the former regime cannot be held accountable for its past wrongdoings. Meanwhile, the junta’s favored cronies were through the opaque privatization of state assets granted control over most of the state’s businesses and other national resources.
Despite all this, some observers and critics have noted that a positive political structure has emerged from the implementation of the “seven step roadmap.” They believe the plan created space for pragmatic political players, as well as foreign nongovernmental organizations, to become more involved and assist the move towards a more democratic direction. Ye there is still a long way to go before Myanmar should be considered a functioning democracy.
Myanmar watcher Ashley South, an author of books who closely follows Myanmar’s political developments, has said that the international community should encourage the reforms initiated by Thein Sein’s government. He, however, has warned that serious and widespread human-rights abuses, particularly in areas affected by on-going armed conflicts, must not be ignored. Without addressing the aspirations and grievances of ethnic minorities, social and political problems cannot be solved, he added.
Kyaw Min Yu, a former political prisoner and member of the dissident 88 Generation Students Group, has said he is more interested in reform efforts underway outside of parliament. As the parliament is dominated by junta-backed USDP members and military appointees who legally hold 25% of parliament’s seats, opposition leader Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party cannot achieve much through the legislative process, said Kyaw Min Yu, who was released from prison in January.
Others see reason for hope in more recent developments. On August 27, Thein Sein undertook a major reshuffle of his cabinet, a move several observers felt would boost Myanmar’s reform drive. The move supposedly elevated reform-minded ministers while those considered hardliners or conservatives were removed or sidelined.
Among the most important changes was the removal of Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, who was widely seen as an opponent of reforms. He was symbolically replaced by the conciliatory Aung Kyi, who previously served as a liaison between Suu Kyi and the former ruling junta. The posting of outgoing railways minister Aung Min and industry minister Soe Thein directly to the president’s office was also seen as a boost for reform.
Aung Naing Oo deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank, recently said, “In a transition in any country, it is a normal practice that those who oppose the reform are removed from their post and replaced by those who support the reform.”
In late August, the government removed more than 2,000 people from its notorious blacklist, including leading exiled Burmese dissidents, activists and foreign journalists. Suu Kyi’s sons, Alexander Aris and Kim Aris, were among those who were removed from blacklist. Observers noted that this highly lauded move happened outside of parliament.
Skeptics of these moves argue the regime has been motivated more by a desire to win desperately needed political and economic support from the West after decades of isolation than a genuine commitment to democracy. As Western countries move to lift their sanctions, and Myanmar emerges as a leading destination for global leaders, diplomats, businessmen, donors and tourists, the roadmap has come together in image if not in substance.
Saw Yan Naing is an ethnic Karen journalist from Myanmar, currently working as senior reporter at Thailand-based The Irrawaddy magazine