Reforms in Myanmar: Challenges and prospects

Myanmar’s reforms are more about the interests and longevity of the country’s military than about public welfare.

President Thein Sein's government has embarked on reforms, ending Myanmar's international pariah status and half-century of isolation, both self-imposed and externally-maintained [EPA]

In a week’s time, US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Asia’s – and perhaps the world’s – hottest destination: Myanmar. He should “see” the ugly realities of the country’s reforms that lie just beneath their surface and hear the cries of the wretched of Myanmar, such as the Muslim Rohingya and the Christian Kachins.

These days, Myanmar’s coming out party is the talk of the town since President Thein Sein’s government has embarked on reforms, ending the country’s international pariah status and half-century of isolation, both self-imposed and externally-maintained.

The generals’ rule since 1962 has resulted in policy-induced poverty, prolonged internal conflicts and international isolation, with devastating societal consequences. Despite its firm grip on power, the generals never really felt either secure or confident about their reign. They have always felt they are riding on the back of an angry and wounded tiger. 

Through their eyes, reforms – and bringing on board Aung San Suu Kyi, their long-time nemesis – is the last resort both for themselves and the society at large. This is the existential background against which changes in Myanmar need to be understood.

As a welcome gesture, just about every leader of both the “free world” of the West and “un-free and semi-free worlds” of the East have hurried their way to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s purpose-built capital replete with North Korean-designed underground tunnels and bunkers. The freshly re-elected US President Barak Obama will top this list of international visitors who have thrown their weight behind the generals’ reforms, with the Lady’s blessings.  

Development and humanitarian packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged, a significant quantity of foreign debt to the tune of $3.7bn forgiven and official superlatives praise about Myanmar’s changes thrown around in Washington, Tokyo, London, Berlin, Paris, Oslo, Brussels and so on. New offices are springing in Myanmar. Every visitor or long-stay visitor to Myanmar is now involved in “institution- and capacity-building” of one kind or another. Investors, insurers and do-gooders alike are all elated. Finally, Myanmar has arrived. 

But there is more to the hyperboles of this “model transition”, as Washington put it, than meets the eyes. 

Collective future of Myanmar

What really triggers these changes is as important to understand what prospects – and challenges – lie ahead. Further, what real-world impact are these unfolding reforms having on the lives of the public, ethnic majority Bama and non-Bama ethnic minorities such as the Kachins in the North, the Rohingya in the West, the Shans and the Karens in the East? 

 US to soften sanctions on Myanmar

Historically, it was the generals’ fear of the loss of their half-century grip on power and wealth that led to state-ordered chronic waves of bloodbaths since “8.8.88 Popular Uprising” when the entire nation rose up against the one-party military dictatorship of General Ne Win. In 2012, nearly a quarter century after the country’s greatest revolt in modern history, it is again the same fear factor that has propelled the generals to make moves: Reform the institutions and reform the way they rule the population. 

Shwe Mann, Speaker of the Lower House, reportedly admitted the generals’ collective fear. Within an hour of his meeting with the visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the parliament in December last year, the former third most powerful general in Than Shwe’s ruling council was telling the Myanmarese journalists, “We do not want to end up like the Arab dictators. One day they were very powerful. The next day they died ignoble deaths.”  

Of course, Washington’s new strategy of “pivoting” back to Asia has also made it possible for the generals to come out of their bunkers, literally and figuratively. The Americans wanted the Myanmarese to walk away, as much as geo-strategically possible, from Beijing’s embrace. The Myanmarese, on their part, are grateful to Washington in helping wean them of China’s international protection, ironically, against Washington’s perceived attempts at regime change in Myanmar. This is a classic geo-strategic symbiosis that is looking increasingly promising for the Myanmarese and the Americans.

However, through the natives’ eyes, that is, the Myanmar public, the country’s recent history stands in the way of embracing the outsiders’ rose-tinted views of Myanmar’s reforms. They don’t share the international community’s “reckless optimism” about its collective future. The generals’ past waves of nation-building have been nothing but national nightmares. 

Since 1962, Myanmarese military leaders have made and re-made themselves first as “socialist soldiers” bent on building a socialist economy and now overzealous “capitalist democrats” embracing the Free Market with fist and fury.

Fifty years ago, the late General Ne Win, then commander-in-chief, green-lighted to deputies to end the country’s fragile parliamentary democracy and build a “socialist democracy”. Overnight, military officers who had never dreamt of socialism to be their guiding light were ordered to become the cadres of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. This socialist experiment ended up as a policy and system failure with devastating societal consequences in terms of human resources, public health, ethnic relations, economy and culture. The 25 years of continued military rule post-socialist dictatorship has only made the social legacy even worse. 

Almost 50 years after the late General Ne Win’s military’s socialist experiment, the “retired” Senior General Than Shwe ordered his juniors to discharge their new mission of building a “discipline flourishing democracy”. Like the theatrical director, he slotted his deputies to play Speakers of the Houses, Chairman of the new army-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Commander-in-Chief, and so on.

‘Buy-the-impoverished-population’ approach

In Naypyidaw’s new play, the soldiers are to form the backbone of reform push as “democratisers”, while western educated technocrats with developmental nationalism are to be advisers. Importantly, in this new cast of characters, the Lady too has an important role to play. The psyche-war savvy generals have worked on the Lady with a “soft spot” for the Army which her martyred father founded three years before she was born. Through the regime’s eyes, it has bagged the only thing in the world it needed to make itself entirely acceptable to the West. 

Indeed Aung San Suu Kyi has ceremoniously helped sell the generals’ new play to the world while unceremoniously choosing to remain silent on the military’s war crimes against the Kachin minorities in Northern Myanmar, the ethno-religious cleansing of the Rohingya in Western Myanmar, or economic disempowerment of ordinary farmers whose ancestral land is being confiscated by army-owned mining and commercial agricultural companies.    

To belabour the obvious, the ex-military officers and their active-duty brethren retain complete monopoly control over all aspects of reforms. In the new era of “democratic transition”, these men, in skirts or in green shirts, continue to hold all levers of state power at all levels of administration, including “people’s bicameral parliament”, judiciary, foreign affairs and finance, besides their legitimate domain, namely state security apparatuses. And it is these “men on horseback”, not collaborating dissidents or the advisory developmental technocrats, who determine the reforms’ nature, scope, priorities and pace.

This is the picture that increasingly worries the Myanmar public who have borne the brunt of the military’s policy, leadership and system failures. Here, the cynical Myanmar public know best. 

 Thousands displaced amidst Myanmar violence

In dealing with unhappy Arab Streets, the House of Saud, for instance, has thrown billions at the Sultanate subjects to placate the latter while the Jordanian crown has created wiggle room for its subjects. Former generals in Naypyidaw, or “Abode of Kings”, have in part adopted this “buy-the-impoverished-population” approach. The catch here though is this: Unlike the House of Saud which sits on the world’s largest reserve of “black gold”, the cash-strapped reformist President Thein Sein – cash-strapped because the country’s revenues have been stashed away in personal bank accounts of senior and junior generals – wants the international community, including the UN, international lending agencies and development banks, and “donor” countries, to foot his administration’s bill. 

Take, for instance, the literal cost of Naypyidaw’s peace negotiations with ethnic armed resistance organisations. According to former Colonel Aung Min, the Union Minister for Peace and a confidant of the President, his government does not even pay the hotel bills for peace negotiators. Thankfully from Naypyidaw’s perspective, Oslo, bent on rebuilding its tarnished image of a global peacemaker par excellence post-Sri Lanka conflict, has stepped up to the plate, and so have the local Myanmar cronies from Myanmar Egress, the best-known proxy for the Myanmar intelligence services. Everyone in the peace process is poised to reap commercial and/or strategic gains, if and when the country’s war zones are transformed into multi-billion dollar special economic zones and ethnic guerrilla fighters “swap their guns for laptops”, as President Thein Sein poetically put it. 

Emphatically, the generals are, however, pursuing reforms largely for the wrong reasons – for their own long-term survival, both as powerful military families and as the most powerful institution with “a deeply ingrained corporate sense of entitlement to rule”. Motives do matter. As a direct consequence, they remain wholly unprepared to do the needful in terms of what will really promote public welfare and advance the cause of freedom, human rights and democracy.

Negative consequences of the generals’ reforms 

As a matter of fact, the reforms are contradictory, reversible and fragile. They are confined to such narrow domains as freedom of speech, new business and investment law. That is, the areas important to middle class Western liberals and attractive to venture capitalists and corporations. Further, reform moves bypass active conflict zones, strategic buffer areas and resource-rich virgin lands. 

When it comes to economically and strategically important regions on the country’s peripheries, that is, the ancestral homes of the country’s 40 percent of ethnic minorities such as the Kachin, the Rakhine, the Shan, the Karen, the Mon and the Karenni, the reforms simply translate into forced displacement, the rise in militarisation, a sharp increase in war-fleeing refugees, loss of livelihoods and so on. It is indeed no coincidence that all fresh waves of violence, atrocities and raging wars happen to be in the ethnic minority regions designated to be homes of virtually all mega-development initiatives, commercial projects, resource extraction, Special Economic zones and industrial agricultural schemes – worth billions of dollars.

Curiously, both the origin and tail of China’s 2,800-plus kilometre-long twin pipeline bear witness to the unfolding violence: Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the coastal region where the pipelines begin and the hot war against the Kachins in the Sino-Myanmar highlands of Northern Myanmar. To date, close to an estimate 100,000 Rohingyas have been caged in new UN-financed refugee camps on the west coast while roughly the same number of Kachins in the North have fled the war on their ancestral highlands. On the eastern side of Myanmar along Thai-Myanmar borders, donor agencies, for instance, Britain’s Department For International Development (DFID) and the host country of Thailand are preparing to repatriate another 150,000 Karen and Karenni war refugees back to their regions, despite the absence there of either a meaningful and functioning ceasefire or lasting peace. 

Because these wars and atrocities are off the beaten-path and largely inaccessible to the UN and other aid agencies, the dark side of Myanmar’s economic reforms by and large go unnoticed except by the US military’s surveillance satellites, which captured images of entire neighbourhoods in the strategic deep-sea port city of Kyauk Phyu razed to the ground. Why pay compensation for relocating a popularly disliked ethnic and religious minority community from strategically and commercially important locations if you can drive them out to the sea and torch their homes completely? These state-orchestrated crime scenes also lie outside the purview of the growing pool of visiting dignitaries, renowned experts and international statesmen and women on their whirlwind state visits to Myanmar. 

More ominously, many international agencies and national governments by and large view this ugly side of development – ethnic, class and provincial conflicts, large scale displacement, pervasive land confiscation, absence of human and food security, growing income disparity, etc – as the necessary cost locals must bear if they are to enjoy projected fruits of developmental reforms in some distant future. Here, the prevailing two-fold ideology of unfettered development and “sustainable economic growth” is at work.

Even the country’s iconic politician Aung San Suu Kyi, who has never set foot on active war zones of ethnic minorities, lacks any empirical understanding or experience to truly appreciate the negative consequences of the generals’ reforms she is helping market in Western capitals with great success.

New era of reforms and ‘Buddhist’ racism

The regime’s pursuit of peace with armed ethnic resistance communities warrants a closer scrutiny than has been subject to. While running the country that has not seen real peace since independence from Britain 60-plus years ago, the generals talk the talk of peace, but do not walk the walk.

Take, for instance, its hyped-up ceasefire talks with two of the country’s oldest and most resolute revolutionary organisations – the Karen National Union in Eastern Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Organisation in Northern Myanmar. The widespread perception among the Kachin and Karen negotiators, and respective communities, is that the reformist government is more intent on imposing peace on its own terms, more or less. Naypyidaw is far more interested in exploiting natural resources in minority regions and securing strategic and commercial routes there than discussing seriously about the root cause of the country’s ethnic rebellions, namely political autonomy founded on the principle of ethnic equality. 

The Kachins who maintained a truce for 17 years no longer feel they could trust the Myanmar generals who attempted to lure them into trading the Kachins’ collective drive for political autonomy in a genuinely federated Union of Myanmar for commercial deals for the Kachin upper crust.

This has led to Ko Mya Aye, one of the most prominent dissidents from the 88 Generation Group who travelled to the war zone and met with the Kachin resistance leaders, to remark pointedly, “The Burmese government knows what to change in order to have peace, but they do not want to do it. The government just does a little to look good to the international community”. Myanmar’s reforms are, upon closer look, more about the interests and longevity of the country’s military and army-bred crony interests than about inter-ethnic and inter-faith peace, public welfare or democracy.   

Upon a closer and honest look, Myanmar’s extraordinary reforms begin to lose their lustre. 

There is no denying that the country’s quasi-civilian government has ushered in a new era of reforms. However, the types of reforms that President Thein Sein – an ex-general and a figurehead – is pursuing are the ones that will protect the military’s core interests above all else. At heart, the reforms are largely geared towards creating a “late developmental state” along the lines of Vietnam and China, a benign Leviathan that will secure the generals’ electability on the basis of its economic performance and along popular “Buddhist” racism. When the illiberal society’s deeply ingrained racism thunders the traditionally liberal discourses of human rights, democracy and multi-culturalism go muted. 

The current reform movement therefore lacks any real potential to result in a new democratic polity which will build, and in turn feeds off, a new and sustainable economic system. 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.

Maung Zarni is founder of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004) and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Myanmar will be published by Yale University Press.