Mon 28 Jan 2013
Filed under: Opinion
Myanmar’s reform has developed at a dazzling speed. In May 2012, President U Thein Sein publicly announced that the first stage of the reform (political reform centered on the restoration of civilian government and multi-party system) has concluded its initial stage, and the goal for the next stage is to advance the people-centered development. In the first “Development Cooperation Forum” hosted on Jan 19, 2013, under the theme of “assisting Myanmar”, U Thein Sein formally launched the report named “Framework for Economic and Social Reform” (FESR). This indicates that Myanmar’s reform has entered the second phase – the phase of economic and social reform, the center of which is to enhance the marketization of its economy and strengthen the role of civil society.
The 45-page FESR is a reform commitment to the international “donors” of Myanmar. For the success of the first “Development Cooperation Forum”, U Thein Sein also ordered the Tatmadaw to undertake a unilateral cease fire with with the Kachin Independence Army to improve the international image of the government.
Although the political reform miracle of Myanmar attracted the attention of the international community, the monopoly, lack of transparency and the poor infrastructure of Myanmar economy have improved little. By the 2015 elections, U Thein Sein will be 71 years old, hence unlikely to seek reelection. Therefore, in the remaining 3 years of his term, he might aim at breaking down the monopoly and lack of transparency, as well as enhancing infrastructure construction as the main goals for his political achievements. Of course, the difficulty is imaginable, especially on how to force natural resources extraction companies dominated by the military and elites to increase the transparency of their profits.
The Foreign Investment Law formally introduced before the end of 2012 is also a key link in the reform of the second stage. Although it created major controversy in the legislative process, U Thein Sein in the end turned to pressure to confirm its wording and to abandon the 50% limit to the foreign investors’ share of joint ventures. This complements the radical policy goals in U Thein Sein’s acceleration of economic liberalization.
In this framework report, U Thein Sein raised many development goals except his promise on economic liberalization to international “donors”. These include long-term goals such as building Myanmar into a developed country by 2030, and a series of 3-year hasty “fast winning” goals. Myanmar is one of the Asian countries with the lowest telecom coverage, with 1% of ground line coverage. The penetration rate of cellphones is also much lower than the 70% in Cambodia and 110% in Thailand. U Thein Sein has made development of the mobile telecom industry an important task of the government to quickly turn Myanmar into an information society. One example is that he intends to increase the penetration rate of cellphones in Myanmar from the current 9% to 80%.
Poverty alleviation and job creation are also important tasks for the second stage of Myanmar’s reform. In accordance with this task, the government launched “Framework for Poverty Alleviation and Economic Development” (FPAED). In the new session that began on Jan 10, 2013, the Myanmar parliament also raised the idea of “People’s Dream” to demonstrate their intention to help the people realize their dreams through planning and budget. Job creation will be a key task for the parliament.
The reform in its second stage also includes “social reforms”. On Jan 20, 2013, U Thein Sein met with representatives from 86 civil society organizations. He expressed his long-lasting welcome for the important role of civil society organizations in national building and state building. U Thein Sein believes a new political culture has emerged in Myanmar- relying on civil society, the government has begun to use dialogue and discussion instead of confrontation to resolve differences. U Thein Sein also expressed that the government will loosen the limitations on the registration of civil society organizations and their activities to ensure their free operation.
According to the Myanmar Times, on Jan 9, 2013, American investor George Soros met with President U Thein Sein in Napyidaw, the first meeting between the two since his inauguration. Soros told U Thein Sein that his Open Society Institute is willing to provide technical assistance to Myanmar on its reforms. Soros also met with Aung San Suu Kyi and the representatives from the Shan State League of Democracy, as well as the “88 Generation” among others. The idea and actions of Soros’ Open Society Institute have been echoed in more than 70 countries in the world. So Myanmar’s government and society are embracing the idea that a healthy society must be open.
AFP disclosed that although there are more than 300 newspapers in Myanmar, only about 30 focus on daily news reporting. In August 2012, Myanmar abolished the censorship on publications. Starting from April 1, 2013, the government will open registration to private newspapers. The authority’s action demonstrates that it has realized: there is no need to fear the freedom of expression by the citizens because it is a key component of the national prosperity.
U Thein Sein who became the Myanmar president in March 2011 is already the central figure of the reform process. The Economist sang high praise for U Thein Sein’s release of Aung San Suu Kyi from her house arrest, his release of hundreds of political prisoners, the loosening of restrictions on independent media and his tolerance of organized labor movements. He is the chief navigator of Myanmar’s reform.
The reform by U Thein Sein in Myanmar has managed to avoid repeating the dangerous precedents such as Philippine’s People Power Revolution (1986) and the humiliating collapse of the strong-man regime in Indonesia (1998). Myanmar embarked on a Korea-style political transitional path- one in which the military regime actively transfers power to the society and peacefully transitions to an elected civil society. Now Myanmar will host the 27th ASEAN Game (in Dec 2013) and will chair ASEAN in 2014. This is recognition that the ASEAN partners are giving credit to the reform and opening up in Myanmar.
Certainly, the world might have doubts: Why has the “Great Leap Forward” style reform of Myanmar been successful so far? This is related to the trust and support of the international community that U Thein Sein has gained, and it is related to the active adoption of reform by the junta when it was still in power. Furthermore, apparently the reform in Myanmar is yet to encounter the bigger problems and key battles, which are the revision to the military’s privilege in the Constitution and the 2015 parliamentary elections. A “heated war” in Myanmar politics is unavoidable. But based the trend so far, the military regime will completely withdraw from the stage peacefully.