Burma Opening

Burma – or Myanmar as of 2005 – is a country in reform, however the nature of those reforms remains unclear.

Many hope to finally see free and fair elections on April 1st, while others are still sceptical that a country for so long plagued by tyranny will be able to take such a path.

The Guardian recently ranked Burma 176 out of 178 countries in the Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, so are things really changing?

After World War Two, Burma was believed to be the strength of Asia, with a high education rate and an economy taking off on the back of rice exports and natural resources. But under the military junta, the country stumbled towards its status of one of the poorest countries in the world. When General Ne Win seized power in a coup d’état in 1962, he imposed a military dictatorship upon the nation- which still controls power today –and installed a doctrine of isolation, forbidding international investments and nationalizing commerce and industry.

In the 1988 pro-democratic revolution where three thousand were killed, General Ne Win stepped down and new group of military leaders took over power. After the gory events and an increase in national debt, the government introduced more flexible reforms and allowed free elections in 1990, the first in thirty years. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 59% of the votes, guaranteeing 81% of the parliamentary seats. However, the military generals refused to relinquish power, and Suu Kyi was taken under house arrest for most of the following twenty years.

In the midst of such carnage, horrendously and more than a little inappropriately “Visit Myanmar Year” was introduced in 1996 as a tourist campaign. However, in order to prepare the country for foreign arrivals, the government begun using forced labour, which led to a boycott conducted by Suu Kyi and followed throughout many western democracies. In 2010, the government allowed ‘free’ elections; where the Union Solidarity and Development Party (military-backed) ‘won’ 80% of the votes. The NLD refused to register for the elections, claiming that the election results were predetermined.

Given such a history, what hopes can there be for successful reforms in contemporary Burma?

Even though the last elections were listed as undemocratic, a set of resolutions were simultaneously adopted, moving the country towards liberalisation. These are likely to trigger a turning point in Myanmar’s political, social, and economic indicators and have been met with international approval. The ASEAN leaders offered a chairmanship for Burma in 2014 and the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa confirmed the ASEAN choice, telling the BBC “It’s not about the past, it’s about the future, what leaders are doing now…we’re trying to ensure the process of change continues.”

Mid-January, the Burmese government released political prisoners after the United States Secretary of States Hilary Clinton, who visited Burma to meet both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, announced the restoration of diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the Unites States.

Internally, changes have also been carried out recently. Early in February, Chinese shoe firm Tai Yi, based in Yangon, refused to give its employees a raise. The latter had been asking for a raise for a couple of months given their appalling existing rate of 53 cents for a twelve shift. Two thousands Burmese workers were thus on strike, which surprisingly worked: the Chinese company agreed to a raise of eight cents. While hardly monumental, these outcomes are encouraging: such an agreement would have been inconceivable just a year ago. Indeed, President Thein Sein legalised unions and allowed the right to strike only in October of last year. Still, the government forbade the publication of the story in Myanmar’s newspapers.

As of the 20th of February, the electoral commission in Burma has authorized the opposition party and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi to be an official candidate for the legislative elections next April 1st. In a book published in May last year, Resistance: For a Free Burma, she wrote: “democracy does not stop at the western world’s borders. It is a world’s heritage.” Stephane Hessel, who co-wrote the book with Suu Kyi, confirmed that “she is in a courageous fight. She is able to speak up, and fortunately, she is able to speak up now.” The 93 year-old peace defender extolls Suu Kyi’s strident and continuous battle to enforce the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Of course change is inevitably slow coming, and despite the efforts of Suu Kyi some Burmese remain sceptical that their country will become a flourishing democracy due to the impact of its past dictatorship. Such a culture of repression also engenders a fear of the unknown and perhaps a national demureness, which is why twenty two year old traveller Olivia Jacomin just travelled to Burma to learn more about the politics and its people.

“Politics is known to be a sensitive subject in Myanmar. We tried to talk about it a couple of times, even when we saw a stall for the NLD in the streets. But we were just sold stickers and posters,” Jacomin reflected. She also deplored the country’s basic living conditions, “public services don’t work; Burmese too often don’t have access to electricity and transportation… All the money goes to the junta.”

Human rights abuses continue to take place on a daily basis, mainly amongst ethnic minorities, who amount to 35% of the population according to the Freedom House. Refugee International counted 3.5 million Burmese who crossed the borders to find refuge in neighbouring countries within the past fifty years. The Women’s League of Burma also denounces domestic abuse and rape by the military.

A national reconciliation, between all different minority groups is a further necessary step towards democracy. Recently, the Karen National Union, in armed conflict for decades, has ratified a ceasefire agreement with the government, which “may indicate the Burmese government’s willingness to end the ongoing violence against other ethnic minorities,” according to Freedom House.

Also the international community has a role to play in helping democracy spread in Burma. The French oil company, Total, egregiously still offers its support to the Burmese military junta. Boycotting Western countries can also acknowledge the work Burma has been doing in pushing towards democracy by lifting trade restrictions and making the country less reliant on existing exports to China, India and Thailand.

Overall, Burma 2012 remains a work in progress. There is a lot to be done both in inside and outside the country before it becomes the asset it can be to the world, and to its people. This year’s elections could finally bring a change, as small as that may be. If Aung San Suu Kyi has a foot in the parliament, then she will then finally be able to use her motivation and her support to push for decisive changes in her country. While 2011 was the year of the fall of many world dictators, from Tunisia’s Ben Ali to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, let’s hope that 2012 will see democracy flourish in Burma, where it too has remained stifled for much too long.

Pauline Guillonneau

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