Long road ahead for Burma?

Janeen Sawatzky, of the Oxford Burma Alliance, analyses the motivations of Thein Sein’s government.


It is easy to believe that Burma’s battle for democracy may soon be over. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s historic trip in late 2011 and David Cameron’s call for the suspension of economic sanctions this week while visiting Burma are clear indications that the international community is taking notice of the incredible progress unfolding in the Southeast Asian nation.

That this once pariah state, condemned for its egregious human rights abuses and violent suppression of pro-democracy activists, may finally see over 50 years of western isolation come to an end is nothing short of astonishing. What is more astonishing, however, is the rapid pace at which the nominally civilian government is enacting political reforms.

Ruled by a brutal and repressive military regime for over 40 years, the opening of political space in Burma was unthinkable only a few short years ago. Inklings of change began in 2010 when the first elections in 20 years were held, ushering in a new era of civilian government. Although widely condemned by the international community as fraudulent, the newly ‘elected’ government soon began sweeping reforms.

Most encouraging was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi – the country’s most revered and respected pro-democracy leader – from house arrest shortly after the election. Suu Kyi, commonly known as The Lady, had spent the majority of the previous 20 years under detention following the refusal of the military government to cede power after her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections. Further signs of change, like the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the release of hundreds of political prisoners, soon followed Suu Kyi’s 2010 release. However, it should be noted that the NHRC is composed of people who have made a career out of defending the regime’s human rights record, which might make the commission lack credibility. Furthermore, according to some sources up to 1,000 political prisoners are still behind bars.

Another important test for the government’s commitment to reforms occurred early this April. Suu Kyi and the previously outlawed NLD were permitted to run in parliamentary by-elections, capturing 43 out of the 45 contested seats, about 6.4% of Parliament. For the first time Burmese officials allowed international observers to monitor voting in certain areas, and despite reported electoral irregularities, the election was deemed relatively free and fair. It should be noted, however, that the military-backed government was well aware that Suu Kyi’s election was a crucial step towards getting sanctions lifted.

Yet despite the unprecedented political developments, there is much speculation regarding the government’s motives. Undoubtedly, much of the power still resides with the notoriously secretive military, which, by right of the constitution, retains 25% of the seats in Parliament. Furthermore, most civilian members of parliament are ex-military officers. Therefore, some argue that Suu Kyi’s electoral victory is cosmetic, a small but necessary concession to allow members of the former regime to stay in power.

There are still major roadblocks ahead for Burma. It is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with two-thirds of the population living in poverty. The government bureaucracy is rife with corruption, and human rights abuses still occur on a tragic scale. Notably, while enacting political and economic reform, the government has done little to ease the suffering of the ethnic minorities situated in Burma’s border regions. The Burmese military has been engaged in violent conflict with the numerous groups in the highlands for over 50 years, earning the conflict the title of world’s longest ongoing civil war. President Thein Sein’s recent order to stop the fighting in Kachin State has not been adhered to by the army, leaving the question of whether he really is in charge.

While the progress in Burma has been encouraging, there is still a long way to go. Optimism with a healthy dose of caution is the most prudent approach.

PHOTO/UN Photo/Marco Castro