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Podcast: Myanmar’s “Democratic” Reform

by Elizabeth C. Economy
September 22, 2016

nld-rally Supporters of Myanmar’s pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi gather outside National League for Democracy headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

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Earlier this week, as the latest stop on an historic visit to the United States, Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi made her first official appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. Last week she met with U.S. President Barack Obama, who announced plans to lift sanctions on Myanmar to ensure that “the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.” But are Myanmar’s citizens really experiencing a “new government,” and is Aung San Suu Kyi’s political performance measuring up to her renown as a symbol for democratic change?

On this week’s Asia Unbound podcast, Marie Lall, professor at the University College London and author of Understanding Reform in Myanmar: People and Society in the Wake of Military Rule, presents an account of Myanmar’s political transition that, while recognizing advances in political reform, nonetheless raises concerns about the common narrative. Lall describes Myanmar’s roadmap to democracy as the ruling junta’s “retirement package,” which ensures a peaceful political evolution while preserving the military’s say in important parliamentary decisions. Additionally, the openness and transparency the Burmese people expected under a National League for Democracy (NLD)–led government have yet to materialize. Lall also points out two worrying signs in Aung San Suu Kyi’s early tenure: that she has left no room for dissent within the NLD, and that she has expressed little public concern for the fate of the Muslim minority in western Myanmar that self-identifies as the Rohingya. Listen below to hear Lall’s take on Myanmar’s reform progress thus far, and find out why she describes the country’s new leadership as “democratic”—quotation marks included—at least for the time being.

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