Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the centre for Southeast Asia Studies, Kyoto University, sheds light on some of the major issues currently pressing Myanmar
By Charlie Lancaster
Why is there a rush to open Myanmar economically?
The opening up process in Myanmar has taken a long time. Pressure within the country had built up to such a degree the ancient regime of Myanmar was forced to look for a way to open up Myanmar if they were to survive. At the same time, the regional and international environments have changed tremendously. Almost all Asean members are concentrating more on accelerating their economic growth and building the region as a community. This has taken place alongside changes within Myanmar’s domestic realm. The new generation in the army has become more progressive and less conservative. There seems to have been an agreement among the elite on the need to transform Myanmar before it is too late and they are left totally powerless. Hence, the political reforms have begun. For the Myanmar leadership, opening up the country economically is an initial step which is less controversial and more strategic. It allows political leaders to cling on to political power while promoting liberal economic policy to justify its ongoing reform process.
What is the military’s role in politics?
The military has had an immense role in politics. Today, it is still powerful but democratisation has restrained its role. I think the military is still very much responsible for domestic order as well as foreign relations. The military has a 25% share of the parliament, so this is how it has retained its authority in politics.
What of the warming relations with Aung San Suu Kyi and the military? Is the government playing her to ease sanctions?
Whether the truce between the military and Suu Kyi will be long lasting, it is too soon to predict. But so far, Suu Kyi is wasting no time in going ahead with her own campaign for greater political openness. It is true that Suu Kyi would have an immense influence on the West’s decision to lift sanctions against Myanmar and this could help relieve the hardship caused by sanctions against the top elite. But if the lifting of sanctions will do ‘good’ for the people, then I see nothing wrong if it also benefits the ruling elite.
With sanctions being eased slowly, has the West successfully brought the country into line with international standards on human rights?
I think we have to be realistic when analysing the politics of sanctions and the human rights situation in Myanmar. Of course, the lifting of sanctions mainly depends on the behaviour of the Myanmar elite; the more they become democratic, the more possible the lifting of sanctions will become. I must admit there is still a long way to go until human rights will become ‘normalised’ in Myanmar, but I do not think it will obstruct Western governments’ current soft stance towards Naypyidaw. We have to remember one thing: sanctions can be removed, but can also be reinstalled.
How important is national reconciliation as part of the reform process?
This is a tricky question. Let me be a little cynical. To me, the current power rearrangement is very much elite-centric. In other words, the power distribution that is taking place in Myanmar is among elite groups themselves, of which Suu Kyi is a part. National reconciliation therefore, in Myanmar’s context, still focuses mainly on mending ties between the government and the opposition (Suu Kyi). We have not heard much about the involvement of ethnic groups. I somehow believe that a greater obstacle for the future of Myanmar rests on the ability of the regime to incorporate various ethnic minorities into the nation-building process. Unfortunately, there has been no clear policy on the part of the Myanmar government. Worse, we have no idea about how Suu Kyi views ethnic minority issues. Without her political involvement, any reform will have little chance of succeeding.
How important is meeting the Asean Economic Community deadline?
I don’t think meeting the deadline on Asean community building is a main concern for Myanmar. Frankly speaking, the chance of Myanmar being ready for the Asean community in 2015 is slim. The country has just opened itself recently and it has a lot to do to catch up to its neighbours. I think the real concern is how Myanmar will chair Asean in 2014. And the objectives of Myanmar and Asean could be very different. For Asean, it may be to vindicate itself for awarding Myanmar the chairmanship. For Myanmar, it is about earning legitimacy from Asean and the international community, which will speed up the process of sanction lifting.
What should the government be doing to help lift the masses out of poverty?
I think the government’s policy must be truly people-oriented. Mega projects may help create more jobs and therefore enlarge the labour market. This could help alleviate, if not eliminate, poverty. Lifting sanctions will become a major part of poverty reduction when labourers can be hired by international companies. I am not sure if there are differences in economic policies between the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but I believe both are targeting the empowerment of the masses economically; for the state to legitimise its grips on power and for the NLD to seek further support from the public. Either way, it will contribute to a more prosperous society especially in upgrading the living standards of the poor.
How can the government help reverse the ‘brain drain’ that has occurred during years of sanctions?
Job opportunities and the adoption of certain international standards in the workplace are essential. Many young bright Burmese left following the deadly crackdowns in 1988. If there are incentives from the government, including a chance for them to become a part of nation building, then there is a possibility that some of them who have worked in different professions elsewhere could return home. But for those residing inside Myanmar, political stability, supported by democracy and sound economic policy, would encourage them to remain in the country rather than finding opportunities outside the country.
Do you expect a backlash against the quick pace of reform?
The people are becoming more familiarised with the electoral process. The NLD has been able to exercise its role as the opposition. The younger generation in Myanmar, no matter in what sectors, will learn more about democracy. The only backlash that could act as a hurdle to ongoing democratisation could emerge from the fear of the older generation whose members may feel that their political space is shrinking too fast.
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