Why the West should refrain from supporting Myanmar’s political reform process until more time has passed and more information is available.  

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Subadevan Mahadevan's picture

Why the West should refrain from supporting Myanmar’s political reform process until more time has passed and more information is available.  

Myanmar, at face value, appears to be steamrolling on the one directional path to democracy. Indeed, this is the impression one gets from the plethora of news flooding the web. The international community and in particular, the West, seems to also have reached this conclusion (Doherty & Crawford, 2012). The European Union has suspended all sanctions in place upon Myanmar bar the embargo on arms sales (Norman & Hookway, 2012). The United States (US), while initially reluctant to do so, has also followed suit, suspending the majority of sanctions in place (Irvine, 2012). While President Thein Sein’s image as a reformist figure has contributed somewhat to the emancipation of Myanmar from pariah status amongst the international community, it is political reformist Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s political liberalization that has acted as the swing factor in getting the West to welcome Myanmar back to the International fold.

Aung Saan Su Kyi is renowned worldwide as a beacon of democracy, sacrificing her personal happiness for the democratic cause in Myanmar – to the extent that she was unable to be at her husband’s deathbed in Britain as she was afraid to leave, uncertain of her ability to return to Myanmar after (Gecker, 2012). Her story has gained her the adulation of many worldwide, even netting her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, collected on her behalf by son, Alexander Aris, while she remained incarcerated in the confines of her house (Aris, 1991). She was a hero revered abroad, a political pariah in her own country. This of course, changed when Thein Sein swept into power, dissolving the Junta Government, ending her house imprisonment, and convincing Aung Saan Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to return to the political arena (Shoub, 2012). She is now able to travel with guarantee that she will be allowed to return. Just this week, she took her first steps out of Myanmar in 24 years to meet migrant workers and attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia in neighbouring Thailand (Gecker, 2012).

The West, by removing most of the sanctions in place, has thrown its support behind Thein Sein’s government.  However, it does not realize that it is rushing headfirst into a situation it does not quite comprehend altogether. It should take caution, for Myanmar’s democratization is not as straightforward as it might seem.  Instead, beneath its seemingly calm waters, lie several potential landmines that the west has not identified.  Of these potential pitfalls, the 3 most important – that the military still holds true power in Myanmar, that the West’s adulation of Aung San Suu Kyi is unwarranted and potentially dangerous and that the minority groups that suffered most under Junta rule continue to suffer even now – make Myanmar’s political situation a particularly unstable one; although the cracks might not be visible at first sight.

Initially, when President Thein Sein began his presidential term early last year, observers deemed his promises to effect political change with disdain (Selth, 2011), aware that political change would be an anomaly in Junta monopolized Myanmar. A year after however, these criticisms seem to have subsided. The consensus is that the Junta presence within the Myanmar government is no longer substantial. Through further inspection however, one can see that this is not so. The Junta government may have been abolished, but the military presence within the government remains strong. The notion of the new government being a civilian one is unfounded.  Under the new Myanmar constitution 25% of the seats within the parliament are reserved for the military. This provision was created the by the military in 2008, when it drafted the new constitution, calling it its ‘roadmap to democracy’ (AP, 2008). Many decried the new constitution as a sham, designed to perpetuate military rule and absolve the military leaders of past sins of which they were guilty.

This alone is a compelling reason to suspect that the military still runs the roost in Myanmar. This however, is not the only reason to suspect Junta manipulation in the Myanmar government. There is more evidence that makes this a distinct possibility. Thein Sein, despite his reformist outlook, has Junta blood coursing through his veins.  Lest we forget, he was a general and prior to becoming president, Prime Minister in previous Junta Chief Than Shwee’s Government. The political party he heads, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is in fact a military offshoot, headed by Thein Sein and various other Junta members who resigned from their posts to lead the party in the elections (ALTSEAN-BURMA, 2012). The ease with which Thein Sein has implemented political reform also points to probable Junta concession. For it would be surprising if the Junta, for so long resistant to political change, has allowed the wholesale changes implemented without protesting if it were entirely not in its favour (Hammer, 2012).

This doubt over the military’s involvement in the country’s political scene is not the only thing the West should be wary of when giving approval to Myanmar’s new government. They must also realize that their current adulation of Aung San Suu Kyi could be unwarranted and a potential source of trouble. While Aung has long been lauded as a beacon of democracy the world over, she is not an all-encapsulating representative of all Myanmarese who desire democracy. There are other parties, unaffiliated with the junta, who also have made claims for democracy in the interest of Myanmar citizens whose concerns do not necessarily fall under Aung’s and the NLD’s domain (Wikipedia, 2012). It is important for the West to realize that Myanmar, in its progress towards pluralistic democracy, cannot have its myriad voices crying to be heard lumped under the singular banner of Aung and the NLD. In fact, were the West to analyze the situation further in depth, it would find that not everybody in Myanmar has a rosy view of the Iron-Lady. In fact, just last month, she was criticized for her refusal to work with other opposition parties and politicians prior to the elections (Guluoglu, 2012).  The West must realize realise that it is championing the cause of a singular voice crying for democratic change and ignoring the rest – absurd considering that it is impeding the very democratic principle of political inclusion by denying other dissenting individuals and groups from having their voices heard.

This adulation and emphasis given to Aung upon her return the political and international arena also masks more serious problems that Myanmar currently faces. Prior to the elections, the international media extensively documented the plight of minority ethnic groups such as the Rohingyas and the Kachin Tribe at the hands of the Junta.  The Kachin Tribe’s altercations with the military in particular, were covered extensively. Through this coverage, the minority group gained a voice that could be heard and pushed forward their plight into the visibility of the international community, heaping pressure on the government to take action to alleviate their plights. These minority groups have now lost this voice. International news reports concerning their plights now only appear sporadically. News companies are now more inclined toward covering news involving Aung Saan Suu Kyi. This is not surprising considering the excitement generated by her return to politics and the landmarks set with the beginning of a new political era. Alas, however, this also gives the impression that the problems plaguing minorities and other subjugated groups have been eliminated – something that is not the case. In fact, the plight of the Rohingya people – having to try for refugee status in India – is well covered by alternative news sources although largely ignored by the mainstream media (Anthony, 2012).

These three reasons should provide compelling evidence that the West has not thought the situation through carefully before giving Thein Sein’s government the unofficial seal of approval by suspending long held sanctions. It should tread carefully, for the suspension of the sanctions could have a devastating two-fold effect upon the West should things go awry. Should Thein Sein’s government revert back to the Junta system of governance, it could leave the West looking very foolish, causing it to lose political credibility in the eyes of the greater international community. More importantly however, its economies would be rendered vulnerable should there be a need to reimpose sanctions. This is because companies from their home countries look set to have a huge stake in the Myanmar economy, eager to capitalize on the removal of sanctions. In fact, America’s hand was partially forced by business lobbyist groups who wanted the sanctions on doing business with Myanmar lifted. Faced with these possible repercussions, it only follows logically that the West should reimpose the sanctions concerning Myanmar and watch for further developments before making any commitment to Myanmar’s supposed political reform process.

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