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Burma in the Throes of Change – Part II

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Feb 11 2012 (IPS) - As ‘positive’ news flows out of Burma – release of political prisoners, ceasefire talks in ethnic areas, increased freedom, formation of labour unions – people inside the country and exiles have been in heated discussion. What does ‘reform’ entail and are the changes going to be fully implemented?

At a port of entry into Burma from Thailand.  Credit: Preethi Nallu/IPS

At a port of entry into Burma from Thailand. Credit: Preethi Nallu/IPS

Reform initiatives under President Thein Sein, leading a military backed, nominally civilian government that replaced two decades of army rule last year, are being heralded by observers as the most progressive since the 1962 coup.

The planned by-elections in April are the ‘big litmus test’ of how much political space will be created for the opposition. The extent to which the human rights situation improves, especially in the ethnic areas, will also indicate the willingness of the government to achieve lasting peace.

With the National League of Democracy (NLD), the major opposition party led by the iconic pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, registering for elections the stage is set for a contest with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) for 50 seats in the 664-seat parliament.

The NLD had boycotted the 2010 elections on the premise that the process was ‘undemocratic’, especially with Suu Kyi still under house arrest at the time, and hence ineligible to contesting under election rules.

Suu Kyi’s present bid to contest a seat is of historic importance, says Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner and director of Tampadipa Institute based in Rangoon (also Yangon). “It will be the first time in more than two decades that the two mass organisations will meet head on in elections,” he commented in a phone interview with IPS from Rangoon.

Prior to registering as USDP in June 2010, the Burmese government’s mass organisation was called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe as its official patron.

While Zaw Win predicts that Suu Kyi will be offered a ministerial position, he estimates that the NLD will only have limited presence in parliament.

“You have to differentiate between the government as such and certain powerful elements in the USDP, the party in power. It is clear that the government has gained in opening up to Suu Kyi; the USDP party bosses think otherwise,” says Zaw Win.

Maung Maung Lay, vice-president of the Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, provides a more optimistic perspective. “Up to now the government has acted quite seriously to gain the trust of the people.

“In political and economic scenarios, they have made the people feel more comfortable, but the main credit goes to the President,” he told IPS over telephone.

Tangible reforms initiated by Thein Sein include the legalisation of labour unions and starting a dialogue with the hugely popular Suu Kyi.

Maung Lay said the USDP is already “jittery” and that the election results may well turn out to be overwhelmingly in favour of the opposition.

Suu Kyi started her campaign tour in January in Dawei, southern Burma, where she was greeted by masses reminiscent of the 1990 election campaign. These turnouts suggest a comfortable victory for the opposition leader.

Even if the by-elections are fair and free, the number of seats being contested being small, the impact in parliament will be limited. Also, President Thein Sein is widely expected to try and form alliances with the opposition.

“I personally think that the President himself will be gaining a ‘friend’ and an ‘ally’ within his circle of ‘reformists’ and will try to consolidate his position,” Maung Maung Lay said. “The hardliners understand the new world order and will want to avoid the type of situation that the Middle Eastern countries are experiencing.”

While individual countries such as Norway have already lifted embargoes, the United States and the European Union are currently reassessing their policies towards Burma in the direction of easing sanctions.

The international community is now vested with the responsibility of acknowledging the government’s positive steps while maintaining the pressure to keep the momentum going in the right direction. It is a delicate balance and one that has divided the different camps.

While the Burmese government has expressed willingness to address a range of human rights issues from political prisoners to labour unions and rectify its abysmal record in terms of forced labour and child soldiers, the culture of impunity is entrenched in the military.

Khin Ohmar of the Chiang Mai-based Burma Partnership, a network of organisations working for peace and human rights in Burma, says the current negotiations are far from transparent and do not offer imminent political solutions.

“The most worrying element is that the regime approaches the ethnic conflict with economic solutions (special economic zones, industrial zones), and creating jobs for the ethnic resistance movement, as if the struggle of ethnic people for the past 50-60 years is because they didn’t have jobs,” she said.

“Lifting embargoes is good,” said Zaw Win. “But we have to be careful that it doesn’t benefit only the fat cats and leaves the rest of the populace out. The economic structure is unbalanced and fragile.”

The new administration has displayed signs of pragmatism and rational decision-making, at times sidestepping the hardliners in the administration so that reconciliation with opposition parties and ethnic groups can proceed.

In a press release, issued after U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton’s visit to Burma early December 2011, the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) called for investigations into current and previous war crimes against ethnic minorities.

“The U.S. must not allow Burma to mischaracterise Clinton’s visit as a reward, rather than a challenge,” explains Benjamin Zawacki, lead researcher at AI.

In recognition of the latest ‘positive’ changes initiated by the government, the U.S. eased sanctions on Feb. 7 by allowing ‘limited technical assistance’ by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to help rebuild the country’s economy.

*This is the second of a two-part series on Burma’s transition from decades of dictatorship.

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