The old era of military regime has ended and the new era of ‘civilian' rule, with all its imperfections, has begun in Myanmar.
As a neighbour of immense relevance to our nation, Myanmar deserves constant attention. Elections held last November, followed by the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, triggered extensive media coverage. In recent months, however, attention has dipped due to paucity of information on the emerging change in Myanmar.
In the above context came an invitation to participate in an international seminar, ‘Myanmar and the International Community — The Way Forward,' the first of its kind in Yangon after the formation of the new government, in March. Hosted in end June by Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the German foundation, FES, the event proved worthwhile. Myanmar's internal politics — the launch of the new Constitution, swearing in of a new President and the Cabinet, convening of Parliament and regional Assemblies, and the assumption of office by Chief Ministers in provinces — was discussed more on the sidelines. The condemnation of elections as “neither free nor fair” by a powerful and vocal section of the international community divided analysts into two broad camps — those who believed that ‘nothing has changed' and those who argued that ‘much has changed.' But gradually, a more credible approach emerged favouring the view that ‘something has changed.'
Strategists of the Tatmadaw (military), who conceived the seven-point roadmap to democracy in 2003, planned to introduce a guided form of democracy. The regime's spokesmen made it clear that elections would be conducted, keeping in view past mistakes. They were determined not to let 1990 be repeated when free elections resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD). Limited democracy is what has now been ushered in. By misreading the regime's intentions and actions, sections of the international media created the impression that real democracy was on its way. Expectedly enough, when this did not come about, they began denigrating Myanmar's rulers for their failure to deliver what they had never promised. Many in Myanmar believe that political change, however imperfect, is better than direct military rule.
But what about the political forces which have been excluded from the process of change: pro-democracy movement led by Ms Suu Kyi, her party NLD, its Myanmar supporters living abroad and their powerful allies in the West? This coalition has fundamental objections to the new Constitution and its manifest pro-military bias. It has demanded a broader dialogue involving ethnic minorities, and the immediate release of all political prisoners.
No one I spoke to in Yangon doubted the popularity and charisma of ‘The Lady' — she is stuck with that phrase even now — but few believed that she wanted confrontation or could obtain political power through dialogue. Many regretted that Myanmar was missing another historic opportunity to secure a national reconciliation through a decisive move towards inclusive governance.
President Thein Sein's reform agenda includes national reconciliation but his plate is full of pressing challenges. He is likely to focus on the economy and re-connecting with the world. Therefore, Myanmar is likely to move on, with the two principal protagonists watching closely from the sidelines: the previous regime's ‘strong man' Senior General Than Shwe is not quite out yet, and the heroine residing in people's hearts, Ms Suu Kyi, is clearly not in.
The participants broadly agreed that the top priority now was the economy. The previous SPDC government's publicity machine spent much energy convincing people that ‘development' was its major achievement but participants recalled, with amazement, how a recent seminar under official patronage had focussed on poverty alleviation, conceding the critics' view that the country suffered from widespread poverty and deprivation.
‘Market economy' is the new mantra in Myanmar but, as a former top official argued, there was little clarity or consensus about the scope and sequencing of reforms relating to the budget, monetary policy, exchange rate unification and financial sector. Another former official presented a hard-hitting diagnosis of what ailed the agriculture sector.
The seminar also explored the possibilities of a change in the country's external relations. Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin stressed in his inaugural statement that Myanmar had turned “a new chapter in its history.” The country, he asserted, was set to move towards realising the agenda of reforms spelt out in the March 30 speech of President Thein Sein. The government planned to introduce market economy and conduct a foreign policy based on Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.
Myanmar's foreign policy framework has been anchored on three pillars: Asia, European Union and the United States. Much of the substantive relationship has been with Asians — Asean, China and India. Surprisingly, the fourth Asian partner, Japan, was conspicuous by its absence at the seminar; nevertheless, it reflected Asian primacy.
Presenting the Asean perspective, a Singapore academic leader noted: “Change has occurred, though in the eyes of some it might seem glacial.” He highlighted the importance of forming provincial assemblies designed to give representation to the ethnic minorities, but this was “a first step in a thousand miles journey.” He made three other significant points.
First, Asean was committed to non-interference in the internal affairs of member-states, but this did not prevent the association from expressing “concerns, reservations or even criticism when necessary, using quiet diplomacy” on the internal situation, including in Myanmar. Second, he referred to the controversy on Myanmar's bid to chair the 2014 Asean Summit, suggesting that an Asean member-state should be allowed to assume the Chairmanship “if it feels that it has the political will and organisational capacity to undertake that responsibility.” Third, he advocated “a regional initiative” to help Myanmar build capacities for change and pointed to Asean's ability to assist in re-structuring the economy, education, rural development, and in strengthening institutions.
The presentation on China-Myanmar relations was along predictable lines. The two countries enjoyed a “fraternal” relationship. It had been transformed into “a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership,” following the visit to China by President Thein Sein — his first to a foreign country — in May. The two countries agreed to enhance cooperation in border management and secure greater coordination in dealing with the U.N. and Asean. Thein Sein called the equation with China “the closest and most important diplomatic relationship.”
While delineating the profile of India-Myanmar relations, I briefly referred to their rich history from the ancient times through the colonial period to the post-independence era. A mention was made of India's endeavours to balance its commitment to democratic values with the need to protect its national interests. I stressed on two critical points. India's Myanmar policy has been facing criticism from the idealists' camp which blames New Delhi for abandoning the cause of democracy as well as from others who express a rising concern about Myanmar's growing dependence on China. Therefore, our relations are bound to be affected by what the new Myanmar government does in future.
In the presentation on Myanmar's relations with China and India, a senior Myanmar official emphasised that her country needed cooperative relations with both neighbours, for its security in the border regions and its national development.
Myanmar's relations with the EU and the U.S. were under severe stress in the past two decades as sanctions were imposed in the light of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement, violation of human rights and imprisonment of Ms Suu Kyi. The EU's policy could change now. This subtle signal was conveyed by European panellists, both serving officials. They suggested that the new government consider releasing political prisoners, which would have a dramatic impact. The Myanmar panellist stressed the need for lifting the sanctions and observed that it would be in mutual interest to strengthen the Myanmar-EU relations, allowing Myanmar access to European capital and technology.
As for the U.S., although the Obama administration undertook a policy review and opened a dialogue with the previous regime, it is very cautious. U.S. scholars at the seminar voiced their opposition to sanctions but explained that the President would have to spend huge political capital to ensure their withdrawal as Ms Suu Kyi enjoyed immense support in Congress. One of them said she had been ‘mentioned' 1598 times in Congressional records.
In the final session, a well-known British expert called on the international community to recognise that change was on its way in Myanmar, which needed suitable response.
A young Myanmar scholar, known both for his impressive academic attainments and lineage, underlined that Myanmar faced “multiple watersheds.” He expressed the hope that a pragmatic and flexible approach would be adopted by all concerned. On this would depend where Myanmar — the region's “black swan” — would be in 2050.
I returned with a clear impression that Myanmar is passing through a complex transition: the old era of the State Peace and Development Council rule has ended and the new era of ‘civilian' rule, with all its imperfections, has begun.
(The author is a former ambassador to Myanmar.)