In defence of reforms

    Doubts about the sincerity of Myanmar’s political reforms have been growing recently among the Myanmar public and within the international community, prompting key figures in the country to attempt to defend the process

    Achara Deboonme | The Nation March 30, 2015 1:00 am

    On the sidelines of a conference last week, Soe Thane, the coordinating minister for economic development in the President’s Office, said there were favourable improvements in Myanmar’s reforms despite challenges.

    “The government is currently implementing the national comprehensive development plan for inclusive growth while taking the national resource management into serious consideration,” he noted.

    The senior minister said food security, access to clean water, sanitation, and housing are crucial to inclusive growth, while Myanmar needs to address human rights and labour rights issues. But he suggested that issues should be analysed from a variety of perspectives, not just those of activists. He also underscored the importance of peace talks to the nation’s economy.

    “People’s expectation is too high. The government’s capacity is too low. There is definitely a huge gap,” he said.

    But the minister insisted that Myanmar is on the right track and there is no reason to turn backward. He expressed his belief that the 2015 presidential elections would be “the first-ever democratic elections under the first democratic government” in which Myanmar people can freely choose their government. Regardless of the election results, progress along the democratic path will continue, he said.

    Nonetheless, suspicions continue grow in on response to Myanmar’s most prominent unaddressed hurdle – military power. Despite the signatures of nearly 5 million people for in support of an amendment in Section 436 of the constitution, the Union parliament decided to postpone possible amendments until after the general election. To the international community, the section prevents further political reforms as it maintains the military’s monopoly on power within the country’s legislative branch. The military’s central role in politics here seem to many to detract from the country’s effort to become a true democratic nation.

    In an interview with the BBC on March 20, President Thein Sein insisted that the military has no part in stalling reforms.

    “In fact the military is the one who is assisting in the flourishing of democracy in our country,” said the 69-year-old leader. “As the political parties mature in their political norms and practice, the role of the military gradually changes.” While he said he would not mind amending the constitution, he refused to put a timeframe on a reduction in the military’s political role, saying it would be done gradually and in line with the “will of the people”.

    The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s Armed Forces, is currently guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in the Union Parliament. Under Section 436, amendments to the charter require support from 75 per cent of parliamentarians. Even if a unified opposition wins 100 per cent of available seats, such amendments are impossible without the consent of the military establishment.

    Last week, Justice Trust, a human rights research and advocacy organisation, launched a report in Bangkok titled “Hidden Hands Behind Communal Violence in Myanmar: Case Study of the Mandalay Riots.” The report suggests that the riots in July 2014 which killed two men were instigated by influential figures who wanted to cling to power and divert public attention from other issues plaguing the nation.

    Based on an interview with local residents in Mandalay, the report said outsiders were brought in to Mandalay to cause the riots while police officers stood by. It said those influential figures’ power “is built into the former junta’s “roadmap to democracy”, a strategic plan developed in 2003 that established “the blueprint and pathway for the current political opening”. Justice Trust is convinced that religion was used as a tool to stir nationalism among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, a strategy that has frequently been deployed by Myanmar’s successive military governments.

    Justice Trust recommends the government to publicly condemn hate speech and investigate the people who designed the riots, as well as encourage investigative journalism. Civil society organisations are urged to initiate more dialogues and establish a national network to protect democratic space. The international community, criticised within Myanmar for excessive support to the Muslim minority, should adopt a balanced approach on a wider range of human rights issues like land rights and constitution reforms, according to the rights group.

    On Friday, Reuters reported that Myanmar’s reclusive former military dictator, Than Shwe, appears to have surfaced in public for the first time since his junta transferred power to the semi-civilian government. Infamous for brutal methods used to suppress pro-democracy activists during his 19-year rule, he appeared in a photograph on Facebook showing him being taught to use an iPad by a young girl.

    Since the quasi-civilian government replaced the junta in 2011, Myanmar has shown progress in several areas. This supported a return of foreign investment. In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, foreign direct investment into Myanmar hit a record high of US$8.1 billion.

    The new Asian Development Bank (ADB) economic report released last week predicted the economy to expand by 8.3 per cent in the 2015-2016 fiscal year and 8 per cent the following year, thanks to an improved business environment.

    Despite the rosy picture, ADB said risks to Myanmar’s economic outlook include a possible slowing of reform momentum ahead of elections, aside from thin external and fiscal buffers, ethnic and sectarian tensions, and extreme weather events. Myanmar also faces low levels of education and hard and soft skills of many young people, leading employers to cite inadequate human resources as a serious barrier to doing business.

    “While the country has made big strides under its economic reform program, many development challenges remain, including improving infrastructure, strengthening governance and public sector capacity, developing human capital, building a dynamic private sector, and revitalising agriculture,” said ADB Country Director Winfried Wicklein.