Sunday, November 27, 2011
Reform is in the Air...in Myanmar?
For almost 50 years, Myanmar had been ruled with an iron fist by the military. Under the military, Myanmar was one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. It has been consistently classified by Freedom House as "not free." The military government harassed and arrested political opponents; rarely held elections; and exhibited a willingness to use violence against citizens. Because of the nature of its politics and governance, Myanmar has long been a pariah state in the world, earning the scorn and opprobrium of countless countries and international institutions and organizations.
The military junta weathered several attempts at reform by cracking down on its political opponents. Most notably, it made a national and international hero out of Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured above). In the 1990 national elections--the first multiparty elections since 1960--her National League for Democracy won a majority of the vote and a majority of the seats in parliament, but the results were quickly nullified by the military, which refused to relinquish power. Fearful that her mere presence would serve as a inspirational and galvanizing force, one bent on challenging and overthrowing the military government, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for most of the next 20 years.
More recently, from August to October 2007, Myanmar raged with massive anti-government protests in more than 20 cities, a set of events known as the "Saffron Revolution." The protests were sparked by rising fuel and food prices and a general economic malaise, though the root cause was almost certainly the brutal, corrupt and ineffective governing by the ruling junta.
At first, students and political activists led the protests, but, to many people's surprise, they were joined by thousands of Buddhist monks, who eventually became the face of the attempted revolution. The military, in turn, with the aid of police and security forces and government-sponsored militias, launched a bloody and ruthless counter-attack, pulverizing the public protests and raiding monasteries and homes. In all, the military government was responsible for senselessly killing about 150 civilians (and possibly many times that estimated number) and imprisoning thousands more.
Now, fast forward to the end of 2010. From that time and continuing through today, Myanmar has embarked on a number of reforms and policy changes.
The country held parliamentary elections in November 2010. While the elections were criticized internally and externally (most monitors weren't allowed, the elections weren't considered free or fair or transparent, the main opposition party didn't participate, etc), they did transfer power to a civilian government led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party. (To be sure, though, the civilian government has strong ties to the military, as many government/party officials are former military officials.) Shortly after the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest; and since then, she has had a number of friendly and constructive talks with the government. Her National League for Democracy is back in business and has recently registered to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Speculation is rampant that she will compete for office in these elections.
And that's not all. The government has passed laws allowing for workers to strike and calling for reforms of existing tax and property legislation. It has also relaxed some media restrictions. Some, though by no means all, political prisoners have been released from jail. Myanmar has even promised to halt its pursuit of nuclear power. And as my colleague Yohanes has pointed out, in response to public opposition and pressure, the government recently stood up to China, backing out of an unpopular agreement to build a hydroelectric dam on the Irrawaddy River. Although there is much work still to be done, the country has made quite a bit of progress in a short period of time.
So what do these steps toward progress and reform mean?
Ties between Myanmar and the U.S. are on the upswing. Washington is receptive to the changes and is showing its approval. Indeed, to show support for political changes already made and to encourage further reform, President Obama has dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar, where she is right now on official business. And Myanmar clearly wants the attention from the U.S. Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Myanmar's parliament, has stated that "Myanmar want[s] a 'regular relationship' with Washington." And more than that, the Myanmar government wants America to help "facilitate Myanmar’s connection to the outside world at this critical juncture."
America's moves in Myanmar will trigger competition for influence in country. China sees the thawing U.S.-Myanmar ties as the latest piece of evidence that Washington is encroaching on its turf. And China is not going to sit back and let this happen unchallenged; it will respond to America's moves. In fact, this has already started. On Monday, just days ahead of Clinton's visit, China's vice president Xi Jinping declared China's intent to maintain strong military ties to Myanmar. He stated: "The friendship, forged by leaders of the older generations, has endured changes in the international arena. China will work with Myanmar to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation."
The outcome of this competition for influence in Myanmar could have an impact on the regional balance of power. Given that Myanmar has had relatively good relations with China for years, nothing will change if it stays in Beijing's camp. The status quo will be upheld. On the other hand, if the U.S. is able to pull Myanmar out of China's sphere of influence, well, that's a different story. It could be significant. Yes, Myanmar is poor and weak, and so it doesn't add many capabilities to a regional coalition. But still, Myanmar's
Lastly, as Myanmar is finding out, positive steps toward reform can burnish its image and elevate its standing in the world. Sure, the West's cheerful reaction--at least so far--is a part of this. But so is the response from the region. As one prime example, ASEAN member countries have also taken note of the steps taken by the government and have rewarded Myanmar with the prized chair of the organization, starting in 2014. It's very possible, perhaps likely, as the government must know, that further political reform will lead to additional regional and international perks. Other things being equal, this should give Myanmar a decent incentive to complete its very nascent path to democracy.