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Burma report lays out road map for reform

2013-09-19
Analysis by Martin Sieff
Burma ethnic conflict: An All Burma Students Democratic Front soldier, an ally of the Kachin Independence Army, stands guard at an outpost on the Laja Yang frontline. Tens of thousands of displaced people have found themselves trapped and displaced by the conflict. [AFP]

Burma ethnic conflict: An All Burma Students Democratic Front soldier, an ally of the Kachin Independence Army, stands guard at an outpost on the Laja Yang frontline. Tens of thousands of displaced people have found themselves trapped and displaced by the conflict. [AFP]

Burma is emerging as one of the most promising efforts at democratization in the world today.

That assessment comes from the Asia Society, a policy institute in Washington, D.C. The group’s recent report lays out a road map for Burma to complete its successful transition from dictatorship to democracy and free market economy.

The report, published in May, outlines Burma’s current state of affairs as well as the challenges and opportunities toward a democratic society.

Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy programs at the Asia Society, and Priscilla Clapp, former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma and a retired minister counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service, wrote the report.

“After more than half a century of brutal, debilitating military rule, the country is in the process of a calculated top-down course reversal, which has unleashed a bottom-up awakening of political, economic, and civil society activity,” they wrote.

Burma is the second-largest country in Southeast Asia, bordered by China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh.

The military ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. The United Nations and several other organizations reported human rights violations. The military regime officially dissolved in 2011 following a general election in 2010 and a nominally civilian government installed. The military retains enormous influence.

Thein Sein: The global community has urged Burma President Thein Sein to end ethnic violence and religious discrimination. [AFP]

Thein Sein: The global community has urged Burma President Thein Sein to end ethnic violence and religious discrimination. [AFP]

Since the military began relinquishing more of its control over the government, coupled with the 2010 release of Burma’s most prominent human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s foreign relationships have improved rapidly, especially with major powers such as the European Union, Japan and the United States.

Trade and other economic sanctions, for example, imposed by the European Union and the United States, have been eased.

Will military influence block progress?

Burma’s narrative is evolving in the midst of typical growing pains toward a democratic way of life. Di Maggio and Clapp caution a wait-and-see approach, while identifying major challenges to progress.

“Notwithstanding the progress to date, from now until the next general election in 2015 the country’s reform leaders – including former general turned President Thein Sein, parliamentarian and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and speaker of parliament’s lower house Thura Shwe Mann – will face a range of challenges that will test their capacity and threaten the durability of the transition,” they wrote.

“Among the most urgent priorities are resolving ethnic and sectarian conflicts within [Burma’s] diverse society, creating jobs for the vast majority of the population who live in poverty, continuing to transform the role of the military, tackling corruption, and establishing the rule of law.”

DiMaggio and Clapp identified key challenges Burma’s leaders must confront to sustain the reform process and take advantage of the current state of affairs. Redefining and professionalizing the military’s political and economic role is at the top of the list.

Burma opposition leader: Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 years until her Nov. 13, 2010, release, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. [AFP]

Burma opposition leader: Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 years until her Nov. 13, 2010, release, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. [AFP]

“Until the military can be removed from its economic domination of the country, both political reconciliation with minority nationalities and economic development are likely to remain elusive,” the authors warned.

Second, they suggest that the judicial branch remains a major weakness in the new government structure.

“This is partly a structural problem, and partly the result of decades of judicial abuse by successive military governments,” they said. “These disconnects add to the problem of developing courts that are perceived by the people as capable of delivering justice fairly and establishing the rule of law.

Agenda: Human rights and power sharing

The authors stressed the importance of protecting individual rights in Burma after half a century of repressive military dictatorships.

“There are no legal protections for individual rights, despite the language in Myanmar’s 2008 constitution,” they wrote. “In fact, all of the rules and regulations adopted since 1962 have focused strictly on security, and they remain on the books, available for security forces to use at their will.”

DiMaggio and Clapp warned that Burma and top army generals have yet to make moves to cede or share power with local regions, a crucial compromise that must be reached to assure lasting peace.

“Political transition itself is not enough to achieve ethnic equality; some hard, practical decisions about power sharing – both political and economic, and eventually necessitating constitutional amendment – will be required,” they wrote.

Ethnic conflict, political corruption threaten progress

Social and ethnic tolerance is rapidly improving across Burma. However, signs of unrest quake beneath the surface and sometimes escalate into violence.

“Communal violence occurring between Buddhist and Muslim populations is providing fertile ground for small bands of troublemakers to turn local disputes into major conflicts,” the authors warned.

Influential Buddhist monk U Wirathu has fueled much of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the predominantly Buddhist country. He is advocating for violence against Muslim Rohingyas, an ethnic and religious minority concentrated in the country’s northwest that comprises 5 percent of Burma’s population of 60 million people. Wirathu is using religious, nationalist and racist passions as fuel to build himself into a national political figure.

To adequately address the violence, the authors recommend that civilian police must be properly organized and trained to prevent and respond effectively to mobs. At the same time, civil society, religious and government leaders must address intolerance and prejudice urgently and with sustained education and counseling.

The Asia Society analysts also warned that Burma’s endemic corruption remains “one of the most serious challenges to the reform process, democratization, and economic liberalization.”

Burma’s president cannot afford to ignore or delegate dealing with this issue, DiMaggio and Clapp warn.

“Thein Sein will have to play the balancing role between competing factions and interests in the effort to curb corruption,” they wrote. “If the level of corruption that exists today is not significantly reduced by 2015, [Burma’s] reforms will likely lead to the kind of ‘half-baked’ democracy we have seen in many other areas of the world.”

The analysts credited Burma’s leaders with “pressing for rapid and dramatic reforms on a sclerotic system, while civil society is beginning to clamor for responses on the ground.”

However, Burma’s small and long-embattled professional and middle classes still are “not empowered and lack the capacity to engage in the work needed to address these issues and implement solutions,” the authors wrote.

Economic development, natural resources and global cooperation

Burma’s government has a long way to go to fully address land and property rights, the authors warn. Local populations remain largely locked out of any say in the apportioning of natural resources to new international investors in the country.

“Despite the passage of a new land law by the parliament, people in [Burma] are still being unfairly displaced by large business and agricultural projects without adequate compensation or means of providing a livelihood. The lack of access to a fair justice system leaves people with no means of redress for displacement,” the report said.

“It will be essential to work with local communities affected by development projects to address their needs and avoid having popular protests seriously impede the country’s economic development and construction of essential national infrastructure,” DiMaggio and Clapp advised.

“In ethnic minority areas, it will be necessary to ensure that proceeds from large resource extraction projects are shared fairly with the local area,” they wrote.

Finally, the report warned, “It is likely that the situation on the ground in [Burma] will get messier before it gets better, especially as we begin to see winners and losers in the process.”

What should Burma’s citizens do to enhance the country’s move towards democracy? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

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