1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Myanmar

How real are Myanmar’s reforms?

A group of young Burmese men wait to clear immigration at the Friendship Bridge at the Thailand-Border checkpoint in Mae Sot, Thailand. Thousands of men each year migrate to Thailand in search of work David Longstreath/IRIN
A group of young Burmese men wait to clear immigration at the Thailand border checkpoint in Mae Sot, Thailand (March 2012)
The visit of US President Barack Obama to Myanmar on 19 November has renewed international interest in the country’s democratic reforms, but also skepticism about their impact on the lives of ordinary Burmese.

Since Myanmar’s reform-minded President Thein Sein came to office in March 2011, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, freedom of assembly has been allowed, media censorship has eased, and the country’s cabinet has been reshuffled.

“Ministers regarded as conservative or underperforming were moved aside, and many new deputy ministers appointed. There are now more technocrats in these positions, and the country has its first female minister,” Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN.

But analysts and observers argue that economic hardship, ongoing ethnic conflicts and a history of media censorship will prove more serious challenges to reform in this former pariah state.

According to an ICG report entitled Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, much of the government’s attention will need to be focused on controlling the country’s multiple internal ethnic conflicts - a real threat to national stability.

“Containing and resolving the inter-communal conflict that has engulfed Rakhine State, and reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State, are the government’s main immediate problems,” said the 12 November report.

Economic hardship

While the headline-grabbing democratic reforms are welcome, resulting in millions of dollars in international development and humanitarian assistance, many believe they fail to address the economic hardships of Myanmar's 58 million people.

Maung Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a fellow at the London School of Economics, says Thein Sein’s reforms “are largely geared towards creating a `late developmental state’ along the lines of Vietnam and China… Sadly, the West and the rest alike are choosing to overlook the apparent pitfalls of Myanmar's reforms, ignoring the cries of the wretched of a new Myanmar.”

Sein Win, managing editor of New Delhi-based Mizzima News, (founded by Myanmar exiles), agrees. “Change is happening in the upper levels of government... but the lives of the people are largely the same as before,” he said.

And while there are high hopes that the recent easing of international sanctions will change things, Myanmar remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.

Ordinary people see little tangible improvement in their day-to-day lives, and inflation is having an adverse effect on the lives of many Burmese.

According to the UN’s most recent Integrated Household Living Conditions Assessment, the average proportion of total household budget spent on food is 68 percent (74 percent for the poorest 30 percent of the population).

Almost one third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, which recently approved a US$245 million development package to the country.

Myanmar map 201203260713120326
Photo: ReliefWeb
“We want the people of Myanmar and the poor in particular to see the reform can lead to real benefits,” said Kanthan Shankar, the World Bank’s country manager for Myanmar.

Internal conflict

But the path to reform will be difficult given long-standing ethnic conflicts, many of which date back to independence from Britain in 1948, analysts say.

While the government over the past year has forged a number of tentative ceasefire agreements with many non-state armed groups which have been fighting for greater autonomy in the east, fighting in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), continues unabated.

Since the collapse of a 17-year-old ceasefire in June 2011, some 75,000 people have been displaced and humanitarian needs are growing, reports the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

At the same time, more than 100,000 people, nearly all Rohingyas, have been displaced in western Rakhine State, after inter-communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted in June.

The conflict is a major test for the Thein Sein government, say activists, who are calling on Obama to make it clear that the attacks on the Rohingya need to stop if the government wants to avoid renewed international sanctions.

“This is crunch time because Burma’s failure to contain sectarian violence in Arakan [Rakhine] State and hold accountable those responsible calls into question the Burmese government’s stated goal of becoming a rights-respecting, multi-ethnic state,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

According to HRW, Burmese security forces have restricted the access of international humanitarian agencies to the area, while aid workers say international donors are failing to deliver.

Upcoming elections

And then there is the future role of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who have been on the frontline of Myanmar’s fight for democratic reform for decades.

Political leaders have conflicting views about how power should be shared under the constitution as well as after the 2015 election, while many believe what is needed now is moral leadership to calm tension and seek compromises if divisive confrontation is to be avoided.

An NLD landslide “may not be in the best interests of the party or the country, as it would risk marginalizing three important constituencies: the old political elite, the ethnic political parties and the non-NLD democratic forces. If the post-2015 legislatures fail to represent the true political and ethnic diversity of the country, tensions are likely to increase and fuel instability. The main challenge the NLD faces is not to win the election, but to promote inclusiveness and reconciliation,” the ICG report says.

The NLD could support developing a system that would give a greater say in politics to marginalized minority groups under the current “first past the post” system, says ICG.

Alternatively, the government could form an alliance with other parties, particularly with ethnic parties, and agree not to compete against them in certain electorates.

“Finally, the government could support an interim `national unity’ candidate for the post-2015 presidency. This would reassure the old guard, easing the transition to an NLD-dominated political system. Critically, this option could also build support for the constitutional change required to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become president,” says ICG.

“Window dressing”

Although Thein Sein has spearheaded unprecedented change in Myanmar, some critics remain cynical about his motives for allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run for election.

“The government is using her image as a democracy icon to promote and protect their way of reform. Their strategy is one of using your enemy's good name to reach your own objective,” says Sein Win of Mizzima News.

Kachin IDP family 201210311502060404
Photo: IRIN Film
Fighting continues in Kachin State
The impetus behind the government’s democratic reforms, he adds, goes beyond just promoting foreign trade.

Some accuse the government of carrying out “window-dressing” reforms to please Western governments and enable the lifting of sanctions.

“The dictatorship hurt the nation's pride. But they also want to lead the change. There will be less electoral fraud in 2015, but at the same time they will be smarter and will effectively use their political framework to weaken opposition. Of course, monitoring from the UN and international community is essential,” Sein Win adds.

He believes that Western countries can help Myanmar by permanently lifting sanctions, which proved to be extremely harsh on the majority of the non-political classes.

Derek Tonkin from the NGO Network Myanmar says that sanctions are potentially a valuable diplomatic weapon, noting, however, that over the past two decades they damaged Myanmar’s economic development and badly affected the lives of ordinary Burmese.

New press and social freedoms

Meanwhile, Mark Farmener, director of the London-based Burma Campaign UK describes the reforms to date as “top down and skin deep”.

Censorship laws have not been repealed, though how they have been applied has been changed, he said, adding that while there is currently more freedom for certain subjects to be reported, others, such as ethnic issues, remain banned. “Media are still not allowed to criticize the government,” he said.

Sein Win agrees: “I haven't seen any reports by Burmese journalists exploring the how and why about what happened in the conflict between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities… Will the government and local authority tolerate it if someone exposes the truth? Will the concerned communities tolerate someone's independent reporting on the conflict? I don't think so.”

According to a recent report entitled Virtuality, Perception and Reality in Myanmar’s Democratic Reform by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), self-censorship continues as many journalists are unsure what they can write about without fear of government reprisal.

The report says internal factions in the government are delaying reforms: “There is an internal power struggle [in the government], at minimum between the government and the military and potentially between the president and his supporters and potentially with more hardline factions in the government.”

“The long-term outlook is not positive,” Farmener warns. “There are more civil liberties in the cities but these are not guaranteed in law, and human rights abuses have actually increased in the past year. However, the changes so far have been enough to persuade the international community to rush to relax pressure and normalize relations.”

He said 2016 would be a critical year for Myanmar. “That’s when a new parliament dominated by the NLD will push for genuine constitutional change, and the military will either agree or block it.”


Share this article

Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.

Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.

We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.

Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian. 

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.