TSG IntelBrief: Myanmar: Time for Cautious Optimism?
As of early July 2012, the U.S. and the Europeans are understandably encouraged by the recent reforms apparently taking place in Myanmar. The by-elections on April 1st marked the first major test of the government’s underlying intentions. The manner in which the polls were conducted — widely perceived as fair and legitimate — suggest that the government is genuinely willing to allow for greater political openness. In a landmark step for Myanmar’s pre-eminent opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 out of 45 seats. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had never before been able to run for parliament because of the long-standing house-arrest that kept her on the sidelines during both the election in 1990 and the deeply flawed poll held in 2012, will now take up a seat in the legislature for the first time.
In mid-April, Suu Kyi signaled her own confidence in Myanmar’s new openness by accepting invitations to travel overseas for the first time in 24 years, including trips to the United Kingdom and Norway in June. Under the previous regime, Suu Kyi refused to leave the country, rightfully fearing that the ruling generals would subsequently not permit her to return. Another positive indicator emerged in late April, when the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, visited Myanmar for the first time since 2009, and became the first foreigner to address Myanmar’s parliament. In his speech, Ban Ki-moon praised the “vision, leadership and courage” of both Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, and Suu Kyi.
The NLD is now the second-largest party in parliament, although it remains heavily overshadowed by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which wields an overwhelming parliamentary majority. The military also retains its power of veto through the constitutional guarantee that ensures 25 percent of parliamentary seats in both chambers will be filled by serving military officers. Although many members of the opposition remain deeply skeptical about the reform process, some are cautiously optimistic that a limited form of multiparty politics is beginning to take root in Myanmar, even if so far it leaves power concentrated in the hands of the military and its allies. President Thein Sein also underscored his commitment to political reform and reportedly stated during a government meeting in mid-May that those in the government “who do not have a reformist mindset” would be “left behind.”
Political Progress Slowed by Ongoing Ethnic Conflict
The complexity of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts — each with its own particular history and complicated set of issues — makes broader political settlement an enormous challenge. For some 60 years, a number of armed ethnic groups have been engaged in violent struggle with the ruling regime, fighting for greater autonomy and an end to widespread military abuses. Several groups had reached uneasy ceasefires with the previous military government; however, these settlements were threatened when the junta called for ethnic militias to come under the control of the Myanmar armed forces as part of a new “border guard force.”
On May 10th, an umbrella organization of 12 ethnic political groups — the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) — stated that its members would reconsider the recently adopted ceasefires if hostilities in Kachin State did not end by mid-June. However, that deadline has come and gone, and the UNFC has remained engaged with the government, which suggests a willingness to give the process time.
On the other hand, the recent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state in western Myanmar left several people dead. On June 9th, President Thein Sein declared a local state of emergency — in effect, martial law. The violence in Rakhine state is rooted in longstanding tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority. The Rohingya have long been a persecuted minority who have never been given citizenship and are officially classified as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The violence in Rakhine state has the potential to trigger domestic instability and a reassessment of Western engagement with Myanmar’s government.
In a positive sign, President Thein Sein has taken greater control of the ongoing peace talks with ethnic groups, and has placed the government’s negotiating team under the direct control of the President’s Office. The government has also revamped its negotiating team in recent weeks. Of particular note, in addition to cabinet ministers and members of parliament, the team will now include the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing. This indicates there may be improvement in coordination between the government and the army. (In recent months, local army units have on several occasions ignored orders from the government to end hostilities.) Moreover, the responsibility for talks with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) now lies with the railway minister, Aung Min, who successfully reached a ceasefire agreement with the Karen. (The Karen conflict was the most enduring of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts; beginning in 1948, it lingered for 62 years.)
Improving Relations with the International Community
Many Western governments, including the U.S., suspended most of their sanctions against Myanmar in the weeks following the April 1st by-elections. Similarly, Japan, Myanmar’s largest creditor, has waived debts worth US$3.7 billion and pledged to resume development aid. At the end of April, the European Union also suspended most of its remaining measures against Myanmar for one year, although an arms embargo remains in place. However, the final ending of sanctions is likely to require further positive moves by the authorities on human rights issues, especially the release of political prisoners, as well as significant progress towards the resolution of the country’s ethnic conflicts.
Myanmar’s current political opening depends on the trust that has developed between the president and the NLD leader, Suu Kyi. With the re-opening of parliament in July, Suu Kyi must strike a balance between her long-standing role as the figure-head of the opposition and her new role working alongside the government as a leader of a national movement for reconciliation.
Furthermore, the nexus between communal violence and domestic instability will remain a key factor in the West’s re-engagement calculus. If communal violence were to spread, or recent ceasefire deals were to unravel, that could weaken the position of Thein Sein and other reformists within the government who are promoting engagement with their opponents as the best way forward. Still, the pace — and direction — of recent developments by the government merits cautious optimism.
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