Myanmar Reforms – promising but still fragile
The military junta has ruled Myanmar (then Burma) since 1962. Since then, the resource-rich country has been turned into one of the most impoverished nations in the world. In a earlier post I have expressed my doubts of any genuine drive for democracy that we can reasonably expect from the military dictators. Events in 2011 open a window for opportunity for the democratic international community to engage with the South Asian country in a way that would take it away from orbiting China and returning it to normal economic development, democracy and international trade.
“A momentum for change”
After the uprising of 2007 and the international attention that peaceful Buddhist monks; demonstrations brought to Myanmar, the junta changed tactics and promised a gradual transition to democracy. New constitution was drafted and elections were called at the end of 2010 . Of course, political opposition did not really participated and the process was imbued with a lot of veto points kept by the military regime. However the exercise brought an important change. In March 2011 Thein Sein was appointed President by the military dictator Than Shwe, who made a step back from the forefront of politics.
The new president so far acts as a reform-minded moderate, but no one really knows how many of the decision makers in the country are on his side and really want to open the way for democracy. Throughout the last year, the grip on the media has been eased, trade unions legalized, and Nobel-prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been invited to meet the president. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was allowed to register, which marked a watershed in Burmese politics.
Most notably, in the fall, Myanmar angered its huge neighbor and only supported China by freezing an enormous dam project on its territory, intended by the Chinese investors to produce electricity for export to South China. The official line of the government was related to environmental concerns and unpopularity of the project among local people. In the balanced language of eastern diplomacy and given the previous record of relations with China, which had a full mandate to free ride on Myanamr’s resources, this was something near a diplomatic war. There are 7 more projects like this and China is not willing at all to give them up. But the Step was a clear signal that something in Myanmar has changed.
The democratic international community needs to recognize the change of tone of Myanmar and the willingness to start reforms. This was unthinkable 3-4 years ago, while now we see a President who is less of a hardliner. The real question of course is to what extend will civilian political power be allowed to take independent decisions and how strong will be the military. Iran also has a president, who is a strong figure, but the Supreme leader there is the one pulling the strings. In Turkey we find another similarity with the army behind the scenes (recently it was challenged by the civilian government) and its role of protector( it Turkey there is a reformist legacy to protect, to contrast Myanmar).
In any case the first steps of recognition already came when foreign secretary Hilary Clinton visited Myanmar on 1st December. She brought with herself a sizable mission from the World Bank and the IMF to assess the needs of the country. This was the first visit at such a level since 1962.
In early January 2012 William Hague (UK’s Foreign Secretary) also went to Myanmar, which was the first such visit since 1955. He also spoke positively of last year’s developments but also noted that reforms are fragile and should be followed by allowing unlimited humanitarian access to the whole country (humanitarian assistance has been block even after the devastating floods in the past years).
Indeed, sanctions should not be lifted so briskly, but the world should show those of the decision makers in Myanmar who are reform-minded that the country may soon be on the way to overcome international isolation and gain access to the world market.
The fragile politics of Myanmar
The upcoming parliamentary by-elections on 1st April will be the first test in this process. On 18th November 2011 the National League for Democracy said that it would formally re-enter politics and compete in the elections. Ms Suu Kyi will run for a seat, which would give legitimacy to a parliament heavily dominated by members chosen by the army. In a way, this is inevitable if the opposition wants to take part in the political process. The next test is what power a parliamentary represented opposition will be able to exercise over the government, appointed by the junta, and whether another round of reforms will follow.
Another test is the willingness of the government to free political prisoners. So far 900 have been released, but many stay behind bars and this week’s release of only 12 of them disappointed international observers.
The Strategic game in the Region
China of course does not look up to a democratizing country in its backyard. Three days before the visit of Hilary Clinton, Myanmar’s army chief was invited in Beijing by vice-president Xi Jinping, who, many say, may be the next president of China (due to be appointed this year). The two countries have extensive relations in the field of defense and trade and China will surely use a big stick, should its smaller neighbor plunges too fast in a reform process, thus challenging the “harmony” China is creating in the region.
Asia Pacific has for a long time been the highest security priority of the US. Europe should get used to this. Now that it is being officially articulated by the White House amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, any change of strategic position may be a challenge to the status quo, where two great powers will be increasingly entangled over the next decade. On one hand is the economic domination of China among its neighbours and the ASEAN countries. On the other one is the US military supremacy and the defense agreements US has with a number of these nations.
Recently, Taiwan and Japan have closed multibillion dollar defense deals with the US. Perhaps these two countries, who have territorial disputes with China will remain the closest allies of the US in the region. But with its huge economic power, for China will be ever easier to extract concessions from the other countries in the region.
ASEAN has by the way offered Myanmar to chair the organization in 2014 as a recognition to the reforms the country is making. They came after a change of leadership, albeit a very carefully managed one. Another change of leadership is due this year and it will be at the high ranks of the Chinese Communist Party.
After World War Two the politburo was dominated by military men. Now it is dominated by businessmen. The new one however is likely to be dominated by young business oriented technocrats, some of whom have studied in Europe or in the United States, and of whom none has any military experience. This poses the question as to what the new civil-military relations in China will be an, more precisely, how will the new Chinese leadership go about managing a crisis and how willing will it be to resort to military power.
Myanmar of course matters little when Chinese make their 5-year economic plan. But the wave of revolutions in the MENA region and the strategic game of South East Asia and the Pacific makes every democratizing country a very important building block of the international democratic community and potentially can change the delicate balance that has existed since the peaceful rise of China accelerated during the last 20 years.