Photo: The 20-lane highway leading to Myanmar’s colossal new parliament in Naypyidaw (Alex Bookbinder).
A test of the military’s commitment to reform
In late November, Myanmar’s major cities began to metamorphose for the 2013 Southeast Asia Games (SEA Games), the most significant international event to be held in the country for decades. Banners bearing the four colours of Myanmar’s flag, festooned with the logos of corporate sponsors and the games’ asinine tagline – “green, clean and friendship” – materialised along major thoroughfares. Naypyitaw – where most events took place in spotless, purpose-built facilities – readied itself for an onslaught of international visitors that would have been improbable as little as two years ago.
Much like the World Economic Forum held earlier in the year, the SEA games served as a coming out party of sorts, a signal that Myanmar had claimed its place among the community of nations after years of isolation. Convincing the international community – and Myanmar’s own people – of the legitimacy of a semi-civilian political order that got its start as a franchise of the military establishment has been nothing short of a monumental task. While President Thein Sein’s reformist agenda is not without major problems, it is clear the political order forged under the country’s new constitution, passed in a rigged plebiscite in 2008, is here to stay.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and leader of the opposition who spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest, is now a Member of Parliament herself. But the constitution bars her from assuming the presidency in nationwide elections scheduled for 2015, because of the foreign citizenship of her sons and late husband. She has become a one-horse candidate before the election, throwing her party’s grassroots credentials behind a single issue: constitutional reform.
The 2008 constitution sets aside 25 per cent of the seats in parliament for the military, unelected. As such, the military still operates like a “state within a state,” devoid of civilian oversight and still in control of vast swathes of Myanmar’s economy. The military is also likely to continue to be a spoiler in the peace process in the lead-up to the 2015 elections [see sidebar]. Owing to a provision within the constitution that requires a minimum of 75 per cent of parliamentarians to agree on constitutional changes, the military will need to be convinced that Suu Kyi’s singular purpose – being allowed to run for office – is in its own interests in order for constitutional reform to occur in 2014. “I will make it quite clear that I cannot consider this transformation towards democracy genuine until the constitution is amended,” she said at a press conference in December.
But doing so might open up the prospect of further constitutional reforms that could, over time, divest the military of a role in political life and threaten its economic holdings. In an apparent attempt to assuage the military’s hesitation to allow for constitutional reform to proceed, Suu Kyi has largely stayed silent on contentious issues. Over the past year, Suu Kyi has been on the receiving end of intense criticism, both at home and abroad, for her apparent near-total acquiescence with the government’s agenda. Suu Kyi has stayed conspicuously silent on the deadly violence wrought on Rohingya and Muslims in Myanmar more broadly, because most of her base supports a brand of latent, parochial nationalism fostered by religion and 50 years of isolation.
Inasmuch as Myanmar’s leaders have publicly distanced themselves from anti-Muslim violence, the underlying mentality that stokes the fires is pervasive at all levels of society and government. Myanmar’s government refuses to recognise the term “Rohingya,” classifying them as Bengali outsiders, and this line of thinking is almost omnipresent in Myanmar society writ large. In June, Thein Sein expressed his support for U Wirathu, the notorious, divisive monk often cited as a leader of the anti-Muslim, Buddhist-nationalist 969 movement, calling him a “son of Buddha” unfairly maligned by the Western media. The government has ostensibly taken steps to punish individuals for engaging in anti-Muslim activities in recent months, including a monk who organised a campaign against a visit by the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation in November (the monk was detained, but quickly released) and some Buddhists responsible for vandalism and murder against Muslims. But despite a clear pattern of violence that explicitly targets Muslims, sentences have been disproportionately biased against them, with far fewer Buddhists receiving punishment.
The wicked problem of anti-Muslim discrimination and sentiment has cast a discernible chill over Myanmar’s relations with its Muslim-majority neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A mass exodus of Rohingya refugees to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia has turned what would otherwise be a domestic problem into a regional one, and Myanmar’s neighbours are keen to see a durable solution emerge to one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises.
The torch of Asean leadership was passed to Myanmar in October, but the country faces a litany of pressing domestic issues. There is also the problem of political deadlock between parliament and the president’s office, which may stymie the efficiency reforms in the run-up to the 2015 elections. Naypyidaw is not likely to be able to set a coherent agenda for the region or act as an effective moderator in conflicts between the bloc’s member states or its neighbours, as Thein Sein seeks to cement his domestic legacy before the 2015 polls
While having Myanmar assume leadership of the 10-country bloc will serve as a stamp of approval for Asean’s longstanding, controversial policy of “constructive engagement,” it is unrelated to how far along democratisation has progressed. “I don’t think it’s a condition of the Asean chairmanship that you have to be a democracy, is it?” Suu Kyi told The Edge Review. “It does not mean that because Burma has assumed the chair of Asean that it is a democracy. But at the same time, what can it do? Well, let’s wait and see what it can do.”
The Asean Economic Community (AEC) is set to go into effect in 2015, which seeks to eventually establish an Asean-wide common market. But at this stage in its development, Myanmar would have a lot to lose from true Asean-wide free trade.
With its a severely underdeveloped industrial base, a desire to promote exports and an economy dominated by a small coterie of “crony capitalists,” the country’s prospects for developing competitive industries would be severely impacted by a torrent of cheap imports that domestic producers would not be able to compete with on price or quality. For this reason, furthering Asean-wide economic integration is unlikely to be high on Naypyidaw’s agenda leading up to the 2015 deadline.
According to the World Bank, Myanmar’s economy is projected to grow a more-than-respectable 6.8 per cent in fiscal year 2013-2014. Foreign direct investment, meanwhile, increased by 70 per cent last year to US$2.7 billion. But there are serious problems the country will need to contend with if the boom times are to be sustainable. In a country where the majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, inflation is a serious problem for the majority of Myanmar’s citizens, who have seen little improvement in their living standards as reforms have progressed. Real wages have remained stagnant, and the cost of basic goods has risen substantially over the past two years.
Land issues are perhaps the most significant flashpoint arising out Myanmar’s economic opening, and the problem of land grabbing is going to be a major issue in 2014 and beyond. The socialist Ne Win regime nationalised all land in the 1960s, rendering existing titles null and void. In the early 1990s, as part of a previous, ill-fated wave of economic liberalisation, the military confiscated vast tracts of land at gunpoint, leaving those without the means to resist destitute. The confiscated lands were then often sold off on the cheap to cronies, who accumulated huge tracks of farmland at the expense of now-landless farmers.
Many of the victims of land grabbing in the early 1990s have been allowed to stay where they are until the land’s “new owners” decide to cash in and develop. As international interest in Myanmar’s “greenfield” economy has increased, a wave of displacement has followed, with condos, factories, and mines materialising on land of questionable provenance across the country. Those displaced in the 1990s are also taking advantage of newfound freedom of speech and assembly, vocally taking cronies and the military to task in the streets, although their successes in court have been non-existent. Myanmar’s government has continued to rely on a raft of repressive laws, both holdovers from the past, and new legislation to stamp out dissent. Convictions under these laws – particularly Article 18 of the protest law passed in December 2011 – have increased over the past few months, and this pattern is unlikely to change substantively throughout 2014.
Despite widespread praise for Myanmar’s recent reforms, it is becoming clear that, while impressive strides have been made politically and economically, Myanmar is consolidating into a semi-democratic state that preserves the economic and political power of the military while continuing to reward a tiny cabal of immensely wealthy businessmen with close ties to the state. Deep-seated racism also remains a fact of life in Myanmar, and although most of the country’s non-state armed groups have entered into ceasefire arrangements with the government, meaningful, lasting peace is unlikely to flourish if constitutional reform does not occur. As is the case almost universally in Myanmar politics, how the military chooses to behave in 2014 will dictate the path Myanmar’s reform process goes down: either deepening democracy through improving institutions, or blocking constitutional reform, spoiling the peace process and fighting to maintain its vast economic interests at all costs.
Sidebar: Although Myanmar’s peace process has picked up in earnest, a durable political solution remains a long way off.
For the country’s entire independent existence, Myanmar’s military has never enjoyed a true country-wide “monopoly over violence.” A complex web of insurgency has become a deeply ingrained part of Myanmar’s political life, and has been exacerbated by the military’s absolutist stance against devolving power to ethnic minorities.
But as political and economic reforms have progressed, the peace process has ostensibly been revitalised. All but three of the country’s myriad ethnic armed groups – the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and its allies, the Ta’ang National Liberation front and the Arakan Army – have signed on to ceasefire agreements with the central government. Thein Sein announced earlier this year that he hoped to achieve a nationwide ceasefire by the end of the year, but unless fundamental issues relating to political autonomy and revenue-sharing are addressed, the peace process is likely to remain stalled for the foreseeable future.
In early November, a KIO-sponsored meeting to hash out the details of a nationwide ceasefire proposal intended to form the basis for further negotiations with the government finished inconclusively. Proposals by ethnic armed groups to establish a “federal army” have been rejected wholesale by the military, who have stated that the composition of the military is not up for debate, and who want to see the ethnic armed groups disarm.
But ethnic armed groups have little incentive to disarm, as the military’s track record of spoiling peace talks and unilaterally breaking ceasefires is readily apparent. Curiously, the military itself is notably absent in the peace process itself. Moderated by the nominally-independent, government-backed Myanmar Peace Centre and led by U Aung Min, a minister attached to the president’s office, peace negotiations are largely indirect, with no mechanisms in place to ensure the military’s compliance.
In late October, the military launched a major offensive in northern Shan State and southern Kachin, and sporadic clashes have continued. The notion of a nationwide ceasefire has faced considerable criticism from ethnic minorities, who claim that, absent a durable political settlement that establishes a federal state, ceasefires can only ever be a prelude to more fighting, giving the military a chance to regroup and reinforce.
For all of Burma’s independent existence, the military has viewed federalism as a preamble to the dissolution of the Union, and has blocked all attempts to grant more autonomy to ethnic minorities. The government has also faced criticism for handing out economic concessions to rebel leaders in an attempt to smooth negotiations, as this has raised the spectre of creating a class of loyal “mini-cronies” who will, in turn, stifle economic and institutional development.
The sort of “federal army” proposed by ethnic leaders isn’t unheard of; in India, for example, some states have armed “home defense” units under the control of regional governments, although national defense remains a federal responsibility. As all of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups relinquished demands for independence long ago, a similar model could provide a blueprint for the future of Myanmar’s defense establishment. But so long as the military acts with impunity and bad faith, this potential future is unlikely to be realised for a long time.