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Sunday December 30, 2012

New light in Myanmar

The government is still riding the reform tiger, and appears to love the experience.

TWO factors dominate Myanmar’s drive for reform: its rapid and unwavering pace, and President U Thein Sein’s personal commitment to it.

Once, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) might have been considered a sop to critics and a fig leaf for the brutal military junta preceding it. Thein Sein’s post-2010 election’s government could have been seen as a PR ploy for mending the country’s global public relations disaster.

However, all thought of that has vanished. Political opponents, critics and observers now share the consensus that Thein Sein’s USDP is trying its best for the people.

Dialogue has opened up between the government and its adversaries, hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, and peace deals or talks have been achieved with several of the country’s 40 rebel groups, nearly half of them in armed insurgencies.

And the National League for Democracy’s Aung San Suu Kyi is an elected MP. She shunned the 2010 general election but was persuaded to run in the following year’s by-election, winning a seat.

Then came doubts about how far the military would let Thein Sein push the reform envelope. That doubt has subsided over the year, without disappearing entirely.

Meanwhile, foreign governments became encouraged by the continuing reforms. Foreign investors followed closely, helping open up the country and develop its economy.

Through it all, Thein Sein’s soft approach nurtured growing confidence within and outside the country. While Suu Kyi at one pole remained the symbol of a democratic Myanmar, there was no doubt that President Thein Sein is the chief change agent.

The other pole, once occupied by Senior General Than Shwe and his ruling State Peace and Development Council, is now vacant. It appears increasingly unlikely to be filled.

The net effect is for Myanmar’s polity to continue moving towards deeper and broader reform. The only “unknown” that could obstruct progress is a sudden or prolonged outbreak of violence against the state, whether ethnically defined or “occasioned” by a lingering insurgency.

But that prospect, while persistent, is also becoming less likely. This has in turn given Thein Sein more confidence to drive the reform agenda further.

At a meeting with senior government officials on Wednesday, he combined self-criticism with stocktaking. In a frank acknowledgement of faults, he pinpointed the two major problems confronting the country: corruption and inefficiency.

In a generally bold and open admission among Cabinet colleagues, provincial leaders and senior civil servants, the President pressed for more democracy and development. He particularly targeted the government machinery in his call.

Broadcast on radio and television, the address raised the two objectives of a “clean government and good governance.” He further said reforms were needed throughout the country, “from the grassroots to the union levels (nationwide).”

Thein Sein also upbraided those in the government bureaucracy who were slow to change, saying wholesale reform was urgently needed. Then he outlined the purpose of reforming the administration: so that “the people can participate and cooperate” in the life of the nation.

It was all very bracing stuff, clearly fortifying the President’s reform credentials. But there was no election in sight.

So what was Thein Sein fishing for, if not more democracy and good governance as he put it? Cynical observers may dismiss it as mere play-acting, designed to appease local opponents and foreign observers.

However, given Myanmar’s reform trajectory, manipulative talk of that kind would be very dangerous for Thein Sein.

Local opponents and foreign observers could see it as cementing the state’s reform drive instead, raising their expectations and standards for governance, making it even harder for the President to back down or scale back reforms.

The more likely scenario sees Thein Sein galvanising political support throughout the country, including (or especially) from critics and dispassionate observers, for his continuing reform agenda. He would need this if he, too, is still uncertain about whether reactionary elements in the military may yet block his reform plans.

A Myanmar source said that was the situation when he first became Prime Minister in 2007. Then he was roundly criticised for obstructing international aid efforts for victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

He continued to head the government before and after the 2010 election, transforming it into a bicameral presidential system in 2011. At each stage he looked and found no military intervention on his authority, and he prodded further with more reforms.

In time he became emboldened, and reforms soon became synonymous with Thein Sein’s Myanmar. But his chief political adviser sees it somewhat differently.

Ko Ko Hlaing said the government has been consistent in striving for reforms for decades, at least since the 2003 “road map” for reform. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, then the SPDC and then the USDP tried to get the country back onto an even keel before launching the reforms.

He said this was an arduous process made more difficult with a spate of insurgencies against the state. Now that things have eased on the military-defence front, the reforms are moving more steadily.

Few would dispute that the reforms have taken on a life of their own. Even fewer would accept that Than Shwe and his hardline generals had planned today’s reforms all along.

Today’s Myanmar is so different from the country that it was up to just two years ago that a leap of the imagination is required to believe it is the same country with the same military forces that had shot and killed students and Buddhist monks on the streets.

Among the changes are the many returnees, Myanmars in self-exile abroad who have now chosen to return home. Not only do they no longer fear for their safety, they believe they can help the reforms go further.

And again, Thein Sein had been at the centre of the government campaign to coax the exiles to return. Among these are journalists on The Irrawaddy, an independent and outspoken Myanmar magazine banned in the country for years.

Founding editor Aung Zaw has been based in neighbouring Thailand for two decades. In February this year he was warmly welcomed by government officials in Naypyidaw.

Earlier this month the first issue of the magazine went on sale in Myanmar. Today, The Irrawaddy’s Yangon office is more crowded with staff than its virtually deserted Chiang Mai office.

The magazine has recently been running interviews of people and asking them what they think of Myanmar today. Interviewees include Indian journalist Amitave Ghosh and Myanmar astrologer and former political prisoner San Zarni Bo.

Ghosh said comparing Myanmar today to what it was in 1997 when he first visited the country was “like going from one planet to another.” He was even more stunned when he found that the changes he had seen had happened within only one year.

San Zarni was not optimistic about rapid changes next year, but believed that 2014 will see more rapid change. He sees Suu Kyi being elected and then re-elected President.

True to his calling, he said it is “all in the stars.” More specifically, it’s to do with the movements of Mars and Jupiter.

But for most people, it may have more to do with the movements of the government and the people at the grassroots.

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