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Disturbing Signs of Myanmar’s Reforms Coming Undone

by Joshua Kurlantzick
June 6, 2012

Myanmar's President Thein Sein (pictured) abruptly canceled his visit to the recent World Economic Forum in Bangkok. Myanmar's President Thein Sein (pictured) abruptly canceled his visit to the recent World Economic Forum in Bangkok (Tomoyuki Kaya/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past two weeks, there have been a number of signs that Myanmar’s fragile reform process, first put on track about a year and a half ago, is facing serious obstacles that, at times, have been papered over. None of these problems alone should derail the reform process, and they are not all exactly linked, but together they could prove significant burdens.

  1. The over-personalization of politics. Shifting from an era when one man, Than Shwe, dominated the country, it is not exactly surprising that politics in the reform period would be highly personalized. Even among many highly educated Burmese working for reformist think tanks and NGOs, I have heard arguments that the reform process depends largely on the relationship between President Thein Sein and National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And indeed, their relationship is critical. But for the reform process to really take flower, Myanmar needs institutions, and politicians need to begin investing in institutions, so that reform is not totally dependent on the relationship between two people. This past week, Suu Kyi’s speech to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Bangkok and her hastily arranged trip to a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand seemed to have angered the president’s office, as Thein Sein abruptly canceled his visit to the WEF and Suu Kyi was not allowed to speak with a microphone at her refugee camp appearance. These events suggest that friction is developing between the two paramount Burmese leaders, and Suu Kyi’s speech, which sounded a (reasonable) note of caution to investors, seems to have further alienated the president’s office. That might not be such a big deal in another country, but in Myanmar, where these two personalities dominate the reform effort, it’s a problem.
  2. The uncorking of the bottle. In such an ethnically diverse country, and one in which certain ethnic groups have long been discriminated against, the reform period seems to be unleashing pent-up sentiments, with police and security forces now unsure how to handle these problems —at times, they resort to their cracked-heads thuggery of the past, while at other times they simply seem to ignore simmering interethnic tensions. Case in point: This week anti-Muslim rioters killed at least ten people in Rakhine State, and the situation there reportedly remains extremely tense. Is Myanmar prepared for the kind of centrifugal tensions that often erupt with democratization? If it is going to be, it will need far better trained, and far less brutal, police.
  3. The influx of outsiders. In just a short few months since Western nations began relaxing sanctions or ending them completely, Yangon and Naypyidaw have been swamped with potential foreign investors, foreign academics and policy experts, foreign diplomats, and NGOs. Many, indeed most, of these people are well-meaning, and certainly Myanmar’s long isolation means that it has enormous needs in almost every area. But as Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution has argued compellingly, the country is poorly equipped to handle all this incoming money and advice. There is the threat that a future government could, as in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, use all of the competing donors and investors and play them off of each other to consolidate a new type of authoritarian rule. Or, as in many emerging markets, the incoming donors and investors could soon dominate the economy, causing inflation and creating an entire sector of the economy just for catering to them.

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  • Posted by Patrick Cronin

    My own recent research trip suggests a corrective to Myanmar mania is indeed in order. However, it is premature to declare that a broad process of reform–one that has barely begun–is unravelling. We need to start by lowering the bar of our expectations. Simultaneously undertaking political statebuilding, economic nationbuilding, and military peacebuilding is simply going to require years of effort and will encounter setbacks. For the United States and those on the outside of Myanmar, that means looking for ways to support reform and help remove impediments and preempt potential spoilers.

  • Posted by Ohn

    Features of the “Reforms” are:

    1. It was started by the military as a well planned and timed process. They sold state assets to themselves in the two years leading to the opening.

    2. Thein Sein was appointed by Than Shwe, military strongman, not by the public and definitely not by Aung San Suu Kyi.

    3. The main issue of Burma has always been a strong and authoritative military. The military is in fact getting stronger and more entrenched than in any time during the history of Burma.

    4. All the opening and releasing prisoners and relaxation of publications have been carefully and fully controlled with possible reversal on an instance notice.

    5.The “Peace deals” so far has been business deals with NO long term political solution and no involvement of the people the armed groups are supposed to represent. Army simply ignores the “President’s Orders”.

    6. Much mentioned “parliament” is by law under National Defence and Security Council.

    7. All spheres of Burmese business world is completely controlled by the regime “Cronies” and Chinese businessmen.

    8.Law breaking and land grabbing are now more widespread and blatant this year than any time in the history of Burma.

    9. Much touted leader Aung San Suu Kyi is there going around the globe not because the military gives in to her demand but because she unconditionally capitulated to whatever the military’s wanted and agrees with them for business promotion.

    10. Most importantly none of the changes are in consultation or agreement with the wider public which will spell disaster later down the track. People have adulation for her but they have no clue what Aung San Suu Kyi’s policies are as they have never been put forth. If they have been formed, they are secret to the public. Let alone given the chance for debate and discussion.

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