One year after Myanmar held its first election in 20 years, domestic and international opinion is still cautious about the prospects for meaningful change in this nation of more than 55 million people.
Much of the reaction to reforms introduced since President Thein Sein's inauguration in March 2011 reflects hope that the country can break from a heavy-handed authoritarian past involving human rights abuses that make it the target of economic sanctions.
Recent events and reactions include:
- Opposition leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, said after a groundbreaking meeting with Thein Sein in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, on 19 August that she believed he wanted to achieve "real positive change". She has been released from house arrest imposed by the previous government.
- The US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, described the dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government as "very consequential", adding it was "also undeniably the case that there are dramatic developments under way".
- UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said the country was at a "key moment" in its history. "There are real opportunities for positive and meaningful developments to improve the human rights situation and deepen the transition to democracy."
But Quintana acknowledged that while the government had taken steps to improve its human rights record, much remains to be done to ensure civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
In any transition to democracy, a critical issue is whether the country can achieve ethnic harmony, which has proved elusive since independence from Britain in 1948, say analysts.
Fighting has flared again in 2011 in the north between the government "Tatmadaw" forces and the Kachin Independence Organization, and in the east with Shan and Karen armed groups.
The president's call in August for peace talks has thus far failed to yield any results.
While aid organizations report better access to most parts of the country in contrast to the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, they are still unable to access areas of ethnic unrest, according to both a western diplomat and the head of a UN agency in Yangon.
Progress has been reported on one front of the conflict: speaking out against the forced recruitment of child soldiers.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) office in Yangon reported receiving 355 complaints about child soldiers from the start of 2010 to end-June 2011; 77 children have been discharged while investigations into the remaining 242 cases are pending.
This was up sharply from 2009, with 78 complaints (62 children were released) and in 2008, 29 complaints (23 released), a trend ILO attributed to greater awareness.
In an inaugural speech to parliament on 30 March, Thein Sein spoke of the need to alleviate poverty - barely acknowledged by the previous government - tackle corruption, end conflicts with various ethnic minorities and work towards political reconciliation. Last year's election was boycotted by the NLD.
Other recent changes include:
- Pension increases for retired public servants;
- Vote in parliament in favour of amnesties for political and other prisoners, followed by the release of more than 6,500 prisoners in October 2011, including prisoners of conscience;
- Financial assistance to farmers;
- Easing of media censorship - with the head of the censorship authority calling for it to end in the near future;
- Establishment of human rights commission to "promote and safeguard fundamental rights of citizens";
- Proposed changes to electoral laws, designed to encourage the NLD to contest future elections.
Reaction to these and other changes ranged from distrust to cautious optimism.
Sein Win, managing editor of New Delhi-based publication, Mizzima News, said he was both sceptical and encouraged by the changes.
"After first clapping my hands, I leaned back in my chair [to think deeply] as to the reasoning behind the moves of Thein Sein's government," he said.
Sein Win said while some changes were positive, he questioned why political prisoners were still in jail and called for legal amnesty for exiles and a lifting of remaining media restrictions.
Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst and the ILO representative in the country from 2002-2007, said he was "very much encouraged" by the reforms. "These are the most significant changes in the government in half a century," he told IRIN. "Much remains to be done and many challenges lie ahead, but the direction is positive and the momentum appears strong."
But can the president maintain this pace and path of reform?
Derek Tonkin, chairman of the UK-based Network Myanmar NGO, working on reconciliation issues in Myanmar, said while the pace of change could alarm conservative elements in the government, "the president is showing great confidence, which seems to be based on general support in the military and civilian hierarchies".
But Sein Win said the situation was still "totally unpredictable during this stage of sensitive transition".
Much depends on Thein Sein's "leadership, capacity, wisdom and tolerance of diverse opinions," he added, warning there "could again be a U-turn involving a military coup to counter an untimely opposition challenge to the government".
"Transforming the political direction of any country, but particularly one that has been under authoritarian rule for so long, is a massive task," said Horsey.
Tonkin agreed the transition to democracy is bound to be "fraught", which heightens the need to resolve "serious internal problems relating to the non-Burmese nationalities whose desire for a measure of autonomy is strong".
Sein Win said the biggest obstacles were "the general public's lack of trust in the government - old habits die hard - power dynamics within the government and a lack of resources".
A former government employee now working at his family business in Yangon, U Shwe, 55, told IRIN he saw little evidence of change thus far.
"Our hardship remains the same. Though some people say there are changes, we do not feel our life has changed. We are still restricted by previous laws and regulations. Ethnic areas are still seeing the wars in their areas. No peace at all. As long as no peace is there, there is no safety there.
"You will be laughed at if you ask these questions of the ethnic people about any improvement in their areas under the new government."
For others, the pace of change is not coming quickly enough.
"If the government wants to change the country rapidly, there are many things they have to reform with the advice of experts," said a phone accessories seller in a local shopping mall.
But expertise is in short supply, said Horsey. "The biggest risk that I see at the current time relates to capacity: implementing the various reforms in a coordinated way requires strong administrative capacity and expert technical advice, both of which are in short supply."
Administration, key to carrying out any reform, is another obstacle, said Renaud Egreteau, a research assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. "The state structure and administration... are in pretty bad shape [and] lack autonomy and expertise."
Analysts note that a key issue that could boost the country's domestic and international legitimacy is whether changes proposed to political party laws would lead to the return of the NLD to the electoral process - an outcome that could result in an easing or lifting of US and EU sanctions.
Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly said the NLD will consider participating in elections if the changes are approved by the lower house.
"Participating would allow the NLD to enter the parliament, where much has been going on, but it would also antagonize a portion of its supporters. It is a difficult choice the NLD is facing," said a Yangon-based political analyst.
For Sein Win, it is too early to say whether these proposed changes are enough to bring NLD back into the electoral process as hardliners may peg the party's return to the fate of their imprisoned members.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
|Aung San Suu Kyi|
"If a majority of political prisoners are left out in an amnesty, there would be the potential of a Catch 22 for the NLD," he said.
The US and EU - Myanmar's second- and third-largest providers of overseas development assistance (ODA) in 2009 - have for years linked the easing of sanctions to an improvement in the human rights record, including the release of prisoners of conscience.
Myanmar received about US$7 per capita in ODA in 2009, compared with $66 for Laos and $48 for Cambodia, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and population data reported to the UN.
The fact that Myanmar receives a fraction per person in ODA compared with Laos or Cambodia, which each have a higher gross national income, is clearly a result of "political pressure", said Frank Smithuis, founder of the NGO Medical Action Myanmar, who has worked in the country with medical NGOs since 1994.
"Withholding aid affects the poor, who pay the price for this immoral political game," said Smithuis.
Egreteau said Myanmar's military elites recognized the need to change. "They are not blind. They know that the region is changing fast, that the Burmese economy is dire and that domestic politics still very much hinder Burma's path towards development."