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Published by: Lwan Thu on Oct 31, 2012
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Making Sense of “Change” in Myanmar

Ko Ko Gyi Introduction of Myanmar
Burma-Belarus Round Table, Prague, 24 October 2012
Myanmar used to be known as a golden land because of Buddhist temples shining all over the country and the rice bowl of the world: the world’s largest exporter of rice in early 20century.For a half-century after the military took over in 1962, Myanmar became a land of fear. Fear permeated the whole society. Not only the oppressed people but also the oppressive rulers lived with fear because fear of losing power made the rulers to commit all human rights violations. On virtually every index by which human development is measured, the country of 56 million people has lost ground and now sits near the bottom of world rankings. When even as many other nondemocratic countries in Asia have embraced economic reforms and foreign policies that have helped to integrate them into the global community and in some cases made them less authoritarian, Burmese military dictators got stuck in isolation (either self-imposed or externally imposed). Despite the efforts of a prodemocracy opposition movement and its best-known figure, Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar seemed fated to remain unfree, poor, and trapped in on-going ethnic civil war. Much to the surprise of observers, however, that picture began to change in early 2011. Despite retaining a firm hold on power and facing no urgent domestic or international threats, the military began to shift course. One of the questions that I have been asked these days is that whether or not Myanmar has entered the process of change. Let me make it clear that Myanmar has changed. The change is significant as fact. Within a year, the transformation was unmistakable. The government freed most political prisoners, including prominent figures such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The regime allowed the opposition, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), to take part in politics; entered ceasefire negotiations with a number of ethnic groups; abolished press censorship and control of civil society; and permitted leading dissidents in exile to return. The democratic opposition responded to the openings favourably and energetically. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi re-registered the NLD, and contested in the April 1 by-elections. Winning 43 of the 45 seats available and winning all but one race. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was among the 43 winners, and now sits in parliament and chaired a parliamentary committee for Rule of Law. She travelled abroad and gave speeches at the World Economic Forum, British parliament and the US.

However, the on-going developments in Myanmar, which President Obama called “flickers of Progress”, has not substantially contributed to resolution of the power distribution crises that the country is facing for several decades. In other word, the process is not without free of major obstacles and challenges. Since 1962, military has ruled Myanmar in different facades, and two major problems of power distributions have stood out: first, the vertical nature of power distribution, meaning that the people do not have rights to choose their own government, and second, horizontal nature of power distribution, meaning that the ethnic minority groups do not have equal rights and power vis-a-vis the Burmese-dominated center. These are the questions of democratic governance and ethnic equality. The process of liberalization or opening (rather than democratization) has not substantially contributed to resolution of these two power distribution challenges. In an institutional term, Myanmar’s constitutions since the Independence have not resolved these fundamental power distribution problems. Unless Myanmar manages to introduce the security sector reform, the country will not experience substantive change in the above-mentioned power-distribution challenges. Having said that, I didn’t mean to trivialize the change we are witnessing. As I noted, this is really significant. In short, just over a year ago this country was condemned as one of the worst tyrannies in the world. But now it is praised as a democratic transition model for other dictatorial countries. It is fascinating and puzzling. Here I would like to address three major questions regarding what has happened in Myanmar since 2010 election. The three puzzles are: 1) Why is the reform taking place now? 2) How do we make sense of the ongoing changes, and 3) What is prospect of this reform?
I. Why Change? (Puzzle 1)

There are three explanations that are complimentary to one another to set up a conducive condition for this regime-led reform. The regime wanted to 1) Reduce its over-reliance on China, 2) To address serious poverty problem (in other word, there was an economic imperative), and 3) To avoid public revolt and mass uprising similar to what happened in 1988 and 2007 (mainly due to the failure to address poverty/economic imperative), especially in the context of Arab Spring.


When the military crackdown the prodemocracy uprising in 1988, the military faced international sanctions and had to rely on China. Since then the relations between Myanmar and China have profoundly deepened in terms of political, economic and military cooperation between two neighbours with regional and international ramifications. Myanmar has acquired key importance to China in terms of natural resources and security. The constructions of pipelines from Myanmar to China through ethnic minority areas of North eastern Myanmar have started in full swing in late 2009. The oil and natural gas pipelines will run in parallel and start from Kyaukphyu port on the west coast of Myanmar and enter China at the border city of Ruili in Yunnan province, that will transport Middle East and African crude oil from Myanmar's Arakan coast to China's south western Yunnan province – avoiding the strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait – while also drawing on Myanmar's own gas reserves. Not only gas and oil but also on other natural resource extraction businesses Chinese engage in Myanmar are very controversial. For instance, the most sea-change moment in public opinion and also within the ruling elites regarding Chinese influence in Myanmar came with the controversy over the Myitsone Dam project. China’s state-owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) started a multibillion dollar project in 2006 to dam the Irrawaddy river at eight locations. The Myitsone dam, which is the largest of these dams with a planned reservoir area bigger than the size of Singapore, and which was being built just below the confluence of the Irrawaddy river, caused the greatest public outcry. Moreover, the Myitsone dam is located less than 100 km from a major tectonic fault line. Experts warn that an earthquake could cause the collapse of the dam, with devastating consequences. When researchers, campaigners and independent media organizations started ringing alarm bells by citing the Chinese-funded Environmental Impact Assessment report, which called for the abandonment of the project or its replacement with two smaller dams upstream, the issue captured the national imagination and prompted a sense of public urgency to protect the Irrawaddy River. When the issue become a rallying ground for national mobilization, The president U Thein Sein eventually made a partial concession to the public demand by announcing a temporary suspension of the project on September 30, 2011. By the year 2050, China is expected to achieve world-class blue water navy status. Myanmar's geographical location offers a "land bridge" for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to reach the Indian Ocean, by reducing five to six days voyage and avoiding the Strait of Malacca. Myanmar also serves as a land-bridge connecting the poor economies in South western part of Inland China with the growing economies of Southeast Asia, India and even with African and European markets.

Thus, Myanmar is part and parcel of China's grand strategic design to achieve its overall goal of becoming a great power in the 21st century. On the part of Myanmar, the military regime finds itself lacking the capacity to steer the country away from China's orbit, given the imbalanced relation between two countries. It would be possible only if Myanmar gain acceptance and engagement of the US and the West. Perhaps, the most important driving arena for Burmese regime to reduce its overreliance China would be in security relations. After the 1988 military coup, Burmese junta that faced western arms embargo found China as the major source of arms supplies, and training. In 1990, US$ 1.2 billion arm sales. Burmese were increasing unhappy with low quality Chinese weapons and services. Burmese diversified their sources of supply from Pakistan, North Korea, Russia and etc. In 2002, Myanmar purchased 10 MiG-29 jet fighters from Russia, to Chinese displeasure. According to reports over one thousand Burmese technicians have been trained in Russia since2001 and hundreds of Burmese soldiers have undertaken courses on military science in Russia from 2003-04. Myanmar also attempted to make a deal worth US$ 5 million with Russia for the construction of a 10 megawatt nuclear reactor in Myanmar. Myanmar's military relationship with North Korea was publicly noted since the early 2000s. Therefore, the nominal transition could be the best excuse for new generation Burmese military leaders, who have focused on modernization of the military in order to bring their forces up to the level of their Southeast Asia counterparts, to steer away from their overreliance on China, which they believe take advantage of Myanmar’s isolation, and seize opportunity to socialize with and benefit from the West. U.S. delegations to Myanmar are generally impressed by the openness of the leadership of the Tatmadaw (the armed forces). “Whenever senior U.S. officials meet a Burmese military chief or defense minister and raise the issue of human rights violations committed by the army in ethnic areas, the military doesn’t deny it,” says a source. “They admit that things are not very pretty on the ground, and ask for U.S. assistance, including training for the Tatmadaw officers.” Earlier this year, Burmese generals expressed their wish to participate in the annual, multinational, U.S.-led “Cobra Gold” military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has also reportedly asked CIA chief David Petraeus to visit Myanmar later this year. This is not mere coincidence.

Secondly, international pressure and western economic sanctions - especially targeted financial sanction - started biting. The major crises are that economy does not trickle down, job creation is virtually none, and the regime’s negligence of public welfare is tantamount to a crime. Although Myanmar's exposure to trade and FDI is higher today than ever before, and even higher than that of some comparable ASEAN countries, country’s growth rate and corresponding improvements in the lives of its citizens

remain one of the lowest in the region. For instance, since 1988, Myanmar's GDP has grown at an annual average rate of 2.9 % the lowest in the Greater Mekong Sub region. The 2010 UNDP Human Development Index ranked Myanmar 132 out of 169 countries. The country is the lowest in Southeast Asia (Laos and Cambodia ranked 122 and 124 respectively). Thanks to the western sanction regime and government’s bad policy, foreign trade and investment mainly benefit the natural resource extraction sector, which does not create jobs. Agriculture and manufacturing received a mere 1% of FDI. Even though the regime has received massive windfall from resource sector, they do not re-invest that revenue in education, health care, or necessary infrastructure. Instead, for example, it has plowed money into building the wasteful new capital Naypyidaw at a cost of about 1 to 2 % of GDP, according to the IMF. By the government's own official statistics, it allocated 23.6 % ($2billion) of the 2011 budget to military spending, while the country spends a mere 1.3 % on health ($110 million) and 4.13 % ($349 million) on education. Some experts estimate that actual military spending amounts to as much as 60 % of the overall budget. The country is mired in poverty. Therefore, a new leadership in post-Than Shwe era has shown a realization that Myanmar is falling even further behind the rest of Southeast Asia. The government has set up a think-tank advisory group to help them in economic policy formulation, and initiated poverty elimination workshops and seminars, and etc. However, the country needs international assistance and economic ties with the West in order to lift itself out of poverty and achieve growth. Thus, the new government was trying hard to persuade the Western governments to remove sanction regime by liberalizing the polity. Now they have mostly managed to do so except the security sector embargo.


Third explanation is related to the economic failure as well as regime’s effort to reengage with western countries. The economic woes are hurting the general public relentlessly. The bad policy of ruling regime often disrupts people quotidian. If history is any guide, it is bread and butter grievances that trigger Burmese people to take to the streets and challenge the status-quo. Then, when the authorities use force against these initial protests instead of peacefully managing popular demands, popular outrage mushrooms into a full-scale uprising. That's what happened with the pro-democracy protests in 1988 and the Buddhist monk-led "Saffron Revolution" in 2007. The first was triggered by a confiscatory currency reform along with police brutality against student protesters, the second by a hike in fuel prices in combination with police attacks on monks. Given the bread and butter crisis is not resolved even under new pseudo-civilian government, the oppositions would still manage to rally public support for their causes, and derail the Tatmadaw’s grand strategy to reduce overreliance on China and re-engage with the West. In its efforts to court the West, the Tatmadaw wants to avoid cracking down on any Arab Spring-style of popular revolt that may arise at home. Therefore, military leaders are tolerating political liberalization, the incorporation of urban dissidents and ethnic rebels into the regimeled transition, and even the surging assertiveness of opposition forces. This toleration

will likely continue so long as the reform process does not challenge the military’s veto-wielding political supremacy and economic interests.
II. How do we make sense of change? Constraints (Obstacles and Challenges)

The dynamic of change has been constantly contested by several challenges. Aside from two power distribution challenges I noted earlier. Another crucial obstacle to smooth and fair transition process is the uneven playground. Over forty year of military rule has created “a skewed playing field”, which allows the military and their cronies to gain unparalleled access to resource, media outlets and protection of laws. The democracy activists and ethnic groups, who continuously face relentless persecutions of the state, and are deprived of resources, skills and institutional setups, will continue to languish in underdog position. The opening has thus far benefited only to (war) criminals, cronies, and crooks and help them gaining legitimacy/acceptable stature. The lives of people on the ground have worsened: poverty deepening and humanitarian crisis is dire, especially in ethnic areas such as Kachin region. The President U Thein Sein seems to realize the danger of his government’s failure to deliver basic public goods to the citizens. In his speech addressing a coordinating meeting of his cabinet early this month, President U Thein Sein said, “Our government must make a drastic improvement for the people’s needs including residential housing, water, power, transportation and jobs.” The voice of underdogs are silenced because elites in various sectors including many media outlets are being co-opted by the power-that-be. There should be no doubt on “political will” on all sides. (The process can even be dubbed as “competitive reforms” because everyone wants to score as a reformist.) But the real trouble lies other layers of challenges: the most visible one is structural constraints such as dire poverty, civil war in ethnic areas and etc, and another key constraint is institutional incompetence such as dysfunctional bureaucracy and worsening corruption , lack of budgetary resource to address very basic public good provision, and lastly, authoritarian political culture. Of course, the actual process of opening up can unfold with unforeseen political twists and turns, and lead to unintended consequences: The sweeping victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the April 1 by-elections is a case in point. But such an outcome is neither a linear/automatic nor predestined to be optimum. For instance, sectarian violence in the western region of Myanmar that shares a long border with Bangladesh claimed several dozens lives. President U Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Arakan State, where a feud between ethnic Arakan Buddhists against stateless Rohingya or Bangalis Muslims has spiraled into full-blown communal violence. The looting, arson, and mob clashes were spreading fast. President U Thein Sein was right when he warned in his televised speech in June that "if we put racial and religious issues at the forefront ... if we continue to retaliate and terrorize and kill each other ... the country's stability and

peace, democratization process, and development ... could be severely affected and much would be lost." At the same time, the geographical and functional reach of Myanmar state has been highly constrained by multitude of societal forces, growing civic challenges as well as ethnic insurgencies that have plagued the country for several decades. Protests of workers calling for wage increase and other labour rights, of farmers fighting against land confiscations, of general public’s demanding for 24-hour electricity, and of peace movements such as prayer campaigns, and so on and so forth are hallmark of Myanmar’s opening. Unresolved ethnic conflicts and fragile ceasefire agreements are perhaps the most important source of potential friction between military leadership and the current hybrid government (also any possible future civilian governments). The positive and gradual outcome could happen only if the status-quo is challenged by public pressure and a negotiated settlement is reached with the hybrid regime locally, sector ally (such as labor rights, media rights and etc.) and nationally. Despite Myanmar is now undergoing the regime led political transition, societal pressures will play a crucial role in intermediating the outcome. One might wonder whether Myanmar is now on its road to democracy or it is merely trapped into authoritarian corporatism. In any case, no one now seems to deny that Myanmar is now at a crossroad.
III. Prospect

If the hybrid regime manages to address pressing challenges including elite/institutional rivalry, provision of basic public goods, Western aid and investment, ethnic civil war in Kachin state and fragility of ceasefire deals, and further cooperation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition activists, an institution-building process will begin in Myanmar, and economic rationality will likely reign. This institution-building, however, must be understood in the context of state-building rather than democratization. For the substantive democratization process, the real test will be how transition (from institution-building to institutional autonomy) proceeds in post-2015 election. The 2015 general elections will become a beyond-symbolic benchmark of consolidified political transition and reconciliation in Myanmar since it could be more inclusive with participation of all key stakeholders of the country including at least some major ethnic rebel groups. Failure of addressing above-mentioned conditions will end up in tragic disillusion of ordinary people with the on-going “reform”. At the same time, the soft form of authoritarian corporatist arrangement will not be sustainable as it is going to face challenges from both above (i.e. hardliners within the regime) and below (frustrated and angry underdogs): the former challenge could reverse the country back to some forms of autocratic rule, and the latter will lead to an attempt of extra-institutional solution such as turbulent popular uprising.

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