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Myanmar: The milestones ahead

By S K Chatterji
May 9, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The latest craze amongst destinations for the diplomatic community globally seems to be Myanmar. The deluge started with Hillary Clinton flying down in November 2011. However, is all the enthusiasm, easing of sanctions and ambassadors being deputed going to enhance the avowed objective of the democratisation of Myanmar? Is there a possibility of reforms slowing down with too much being offered too early?

A combination of America’s focus on the Pacific and the east, disallowing the Chinese greater space, and Myanmar’s rich natural resources may have pushed the pace. However, a review of the bigger issues that need resolution in Myanmar merit a debate.

The biggest challenge facing Myanmar is its 2008 constitution. The provisions of the constitution allow 25 percent military nominees in the bicameral parliament at the centre and elected houses in the regions/states. The army-backed ruling party USDP, led by Thein Sein, himself a former military general, is populated with ex-army officers who resigned to join the party before the 2011 election. The Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) nominates the Defence, Home, and Border Affairs ministers. Further, the Myanmar president can also declare an emergency by following a procedure constitutionally laid down and the C-in-C can take over both executive and judicial powers. The Myanmar version of democracy, so far, is a far cry from text book stuff.

The new government has been able to negotiate ceasefire agreements with most insurgent groups but the Kachin Independence Army continues in a combative mode. The fact that talks with various groups include a political dialogue, rather than just operational issues, is certainly a big step forward. It addresses the issue of an inclusive architecture but some insurgent leaderships dumping their lucrative drug trafficking and smuggling interests is difficult to visualise. Myanmar also has to evolve as a federal state with equal opportunities for all. Any assimilationist pressures on its ethnic minorities will be counterproductive.

As far as the release of political prisoners is concerned, there is the requirement of their numbers being authenticated. There are also reports of the release being conditional to non-indulgence in certain activities, as also of jail terms having been suspended and not terminated. Given Myanmar’s history, a validation of the current regime’s claims would be prudent.

Fortunately, no one has as yet been vocal about bringing to justice Myanmar’s generals. Aung San Suu Kyi has also skirted the issue with tact. Any precipitate action against the retired generals can destabilise Myanmar. Such issues are best addressed at a later date.

Possibly the best way to go about the issue of lifting sanctions is as one school of thought recommends — not lift them as inducements to the current leadership for carrying out reforms, but as a response to further reforms that they execute. The lifting of sanctions have to also help the nation grow and not just prove to be a boon for the military’s vast financial empire or its generals’ assets. The current round of sanctions lifted or suspended provides enough opportunity for economic activity to surge, and the country has already displayed the courage to not sink any deeper into a Chinese orbit. Undoubtedly, the pace of progress has been rapid, keeping in view the fact that President Thein Sein must have had to battle the hardliners, however, the road ahead is long, arduous and may require constant vigil.

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