The right to strike, prisoners released . . . Myanmar's generals seem to be inching towards reform, but many remain sceptical.
A year ago, it was a banned symbol of resistance. Now Myanmar's most famous face is becoming ubiquitous in the capital: on trinkets, posters and newspaper front pages, the serene features of Aung San Suu Kyi are hard to avoid. And so is the impression that Myanmar is on the edge of something quite unexpected and unusual in these parts. Change.
After more than two decades of rule that has been by turns obstinate, cruel and surreal, the generals are showing tentative signs of reform.
Labour unions have been granted the right to strike. Some political prisoners have been released. An unpopular dam project on the Irrawaddy was suspended, the authorities preferring to annoy their Chinese paymasters rather than furious locals.
But is Myanmar about to undergo a proper thaw after years of frosty diplomacy — or is it just a play by the generals to improve international relations at a time when they are short of cash and intimidated by the rise of their mighty northern neighbour? Andrew Mitchell, the U.K. International Development Secretary and the first Cabinet Minister from an EU country to visit in decades, told journalists on Thursday that the country was “making clear and immutable progress.”
“Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration and a personal hero to many across the world. It is an immense honour to have met her ... As I saw today on the visit we made to a school in Rangoon [Yangon], she represents the hopes and dreams of Myanmar's people,” said Mr. Mitchell.
“I am making this unprecedented visit because there are tentative — but real — signs of progress in Myanmar, which I welcome. But my message is clear: we need urgent further progress. I call upon the Myanmarese government to release all political prisoners, including Min Ko Naing, immediately; to ensure the coming byelections are free and fair; and to take steps to end the conflict on Myanmar's borders and strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law. These actions would signal the way for a fundamental shift in the relationship between Myanmar and Britain.”
Hundreds of people are still detained by the authorities, but there have been signs of an imminent release of prisoners in recent days. Labour Minister Aung Kyi said the move would come “in the near future.” Earlier this week, Ms Suu Kyi, who is returning to the political fray, expressed cautious hope about recent progress.
Reform hopes have centred on the figure of Thein Sein, President since March, a moderate who consented to a meeting with Ms Suu Kyi in August. People in the capital generally speak well of a President whom many believe did not want the job, seeing him as a figure of compromise and relative honesty, with an aim of modernising his moribund country. The President speaks of wanting to move Myanmar towards a “disciplined, flourishing democracy.”
U Win Tin, a founding member of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said: “There are really two governments in this country; the government of Thein Sein and then the military.” He pointed to Thein Sein's much-applauded speeches to Parliament promising “clean government” and peace with ethnic armed groups, while the military waged war against ethnic rebel groups.
Others trust the leadership still less. Newly released labour activist Su Su New said: “The government doesn't follow the law; that's why there are a lot of problems.” Thein Sein's military proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, rigged last year's election, and took up the majority of seats in the country's two national Parliaments.
Still, legislative reforms have been passed and include a labour organisation bill that gives workers the right to strike and unionise for the first time since the 1960s. A “massive” step, according to Steve Marshall, the International Labour Organisation's Yangon liaison officer.
“Our labour can organise according to their will,” said Deputy Labour Minister U Myint Thein. “It will bring benefits to the economy.” The President has made overtures to the West and reform-minded elites, promising human rights progress and market-orientated economics. Changes have included an easing of censorship, reform of electoral laws, privatisations and calls for exiles to return. U Myint Thein said: “Already we have changed, now the West should respond.” Part of the leadership's motivation for change could be economic. Sanctions and international isolation left Myanmar solely in the orbit of China, especially with regard to loans. Professor Shujie Yao of the University of Nottingham said that, in the face of China, “many countries are fearing for their sovereignty, even Japan”.
“We need new friends,” said Myanmarese economist Khin Maung Nyo. “We have two problems: a lack of funds and also the government should manage funds effectively and wisely.” Myanmar's debt has been growing fast and its currency is unstable. “Officially $1 is equal to six kyat but in practice it's 800 or 900 kyat to the dollar,” added Khin Maung Nyo. Some allege this is a part of a broader scam to hide revenues.
The government spends around 23 per cent of GDP on the military, yet only one per cent on education and one per cent on health, causing what Paul Whittingham, head of the Myanmar section of the Department for International Development, describes as a “crisis in healthcare.”
Another legislative move has involved a re-examination of laws for protest. Four years ago, protests led by monks were brutally crushed. Parliament is now drafting laws that allow protesters to peacefully “process” if they remain silent. Slogans may be carried only if pre-approved.
Mindful of the startling change in the Arab world, popular revolt is a matter of serious concern to the generals. This week a small group of monks in Mandalay persisted with a public rally to demand prisoner releases.
More dramatic still was the outcome from a grassroots movement against the Myitsone dam being built by the Chinese on the Irrawaddy. The dam would have flooded an area the size of Singapore and destroyed fisheries and infrastructure downriver. Ninety per cent of the energy generated was to go to China, while the cash generated would have disappeared into the dark recesses of the junta's inscrutable financial ledger. Not surprisingly locals revolted, with bomb attacks and “save the Irrawaddy” messages plastered on the walls of towns and cities, even Yangon.
On the streets of Yangon, the people wait for change. “We hope things are moving, slow and steady,” said one wistful teacher who did not want to be named. “Maybe.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011