Fri 18 Apr 2014
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Myanmar’s political reforms will continue and more changes can be expected after the election next year, but the push towards democracy will be gradual, said a top adviser to the government.
“Hopefully, we will have all political parties being involved and hopefully it will be a free election,” said Dr Thant Myint-U of next year’s poll, which is seen as a crucial test of the country’s progress since emerging from decades of military rule three years ago.
“I’m sure there will be some problems, but in general, I think we will wind up with a parliament that is more or less representative of the country,” added the historian and member of President Thein Sein’s National Economic and Social Advisory Council.
“I think all these things — whether it’s about the democratic transition or the economic transition — is a generational thing. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Dr Thant spoke to TODAY this week at the sidelines of a leadership forum organised by Wong Partnership.
Since taking power in March 2011 after nearly half a century of military rule, Mr Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has launched a series of political and economic reforms — including releasing almost all of the country’s political prisoners, implementing a market-oriented exchange rate and renewing dialogue with ethnic rebel groups that have fought for decades for autonomy.
In return, most sanctions by the West have been lifted, sparking an investment boom in the country.
One major change to the country’s political landscape has been the return of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory in the 2012 by-elections, giving her a seat in Parliament. She had spent years under house arrest during the junta regime and the NLD had boycotted the 2010 general election, but had participated in the subsequent by-elections following changes to the election laws.
Ms Suu Kyi has called for the constitution to be amended ahead of next year’s poll, criticising it as undemocratic because of clauses giving the military a mandatory allocation of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats.
She has stated her interest for the presidency, but will not be eligible because the constitution bans anyone with foreign children.
Ms Suu Kyi and her husband, the late British academic Michael Aris, have two children who are British.
Last week, she urged again for a change to the constitution and said the country was not yet a democracy despite the recent reforms.
Dr Thant — an author and the grandson of the first Asian Secretary-General to the United Nations, U Thant — said that any amendment to the constitution on the military’s role was unlikely to happen before the poll.
A more likely development is a nationwide ceasefire agreement between the government and the country’s ethnic rebels as part of national reconciliation.
Dr Thant, who is involved in the negotiations with all 17 major armed groups, said that there is a more than 50 per cent chance of a deal being struck.
If this happens before next year’s election, it would be a watershed moment for the country, he added.
“That would be a historic agreement because it goes way beyond a normal ceasefire … and sets the stage for the political dialogue to come.”
For now, that — and recent ethnic violence in Rakhine state between Rakhine Buddhists and minority Muslim Rohingyas — will remain challenges for the country.
Last month, aid workers were evacuated after riots in the Rakhine capital Sittwe set off fears of a humanitarian crisis.
“I think a lot can be done in terms of ensuring basic security and that people who are responsible are properly prosecuted. But I don’t think you can look at this issue in isolation from the broader issues — Rakhine in the British days was the richest part of the country and now it is the poorest part of the country. So it’s not a coincidence that you have this level of violence,” he said.
Myanmar will be taking leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first time this year and its handling of the role will be closely watched, particularly as the negotiations for the South China Sea code of conduct between ASEAN members and China will take place under the shadow of the Philippines’ recent arbitration case against Beijing’s territorial claims in area.
Dr Thant said Myanmar is taking its role seriously and is consulting technocrats and foreign experts to help it deal with the issues it will face as ASEAN chair.
“Whether it’s the code of conduct for the South China Sea or other things, I think it’s looking at suggestions and then trying to exceed them a little bit.”