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Myanmar: it is not a democracy (yet)

Just having Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Australia is a lovely thing. She is one of those few international figures, along with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Xanana Gusmao, who seem to be all but universally admired in the West.

But despite Daw (to use the polite honorific) Suu Kyi taking a few days out to say thanks to those in Australia who have supported her long and difficult struggle for democracy in the country now known as Myanmar, formerly called Burma, she has a much more practical and compelling agenda. In short, Suu Kyi wants the world to press Myanmar's still military-dominated government to amend the constitution to allow genuine democracy.

There is no doubt that Myanmar has embarked on a process of political reform over the past two years. Politically, it has only the barest resemblance to that dark and closed place of extensive human rights abuse that existed until recently.

But despite what appears to be the genuine, if sometimes misguided, efforts of the United National Development Party (UNDP) government, war continues to rage against Kachin and Shan separatists in the north and north-east of the country. Other ethnic groups have made a temporary peace, or are looking to do so.

So, too, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, of Rhakine state, continue to be at the edge of the state’s tolerance. A related sentiment has also been expressed in anti-Muslim rioting closer to the country’s heartland, often with what has been perceived as intentionally too little state response.

Myanmar is, therefore, a state in transition. And it has, at this stage, only gone part of the way.

The 2008 constitution was voted on in an unobserved vote, as the country was still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Nargis. This allowed the regime to re-commit to a "Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy", enunciated first in 2003 by prime minister Kyin Nyunt, who was then sacked and jailed for having gone too far too soon.

Suu Kyi’s Australian -- and international -- campaign now is to have the necessary 75% of the government agree to change the constitution. In her first comments on Australian soil, she said this was necessary if Myanmar is to become a democracy.

Under the existing constitution, which bans ministers from having family members living overseas, Suu Kyi is barred from running for president. However, this also applies to some existing ministers and is, therefore, expected to be changed.

But more importantly, when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2015, the military will have reserved for it 25% of the seats in the Parliament. With just one more vote, the military will still control a veto over further constitutional change.

Based on the results of the 1990 elections, when the people of Myanmar had something akin to a real vote, the UNDP could be expected to win at least about the same as, if not more than, its predecessor State Law and Order Restoration Council’s 20% of the vote. That would guarantee no constitutional change to remove a military veto over constitutional amendments.

To this could be added the vote of localised ethnically based parties, which are no friends of Suu Kyi’s ethnic Burman National League for Democracy. Not only would Suu Kyi and her NLD not win enough of the vote to change the constitution, despite overwhelming public support, they would even be struggling to form a majority in Myanmar’s Parliament.

This constitutional rigging is Suu Kyi’s underlying message during her Australia visit.

Beyond rigging the parliamentary vote, Myanmar’s military controlled National Defence and Security Council sits above the Parliament and has the capacity to declare a state of emergency, in which it may dissolve the Parliament and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. This can only be changed via the constitution, which is rigged to disallow such a change.

So, during her visit to Australia, when Aung San Suu Kyi mentions "constitutional reform" or "change", she is not referring to some abstract principle. What Suu Kyi will be referring to is whether or not Myanmar becomes a democracy.

Burma backgrounder: it is not a democracy (yet)

Just having Burma’s pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Australia is a lovely thing. She is one of those few international figures, along with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Xanana Gusmao, who seem to be all but universally admired in the West.

But despite Daw (to use the polite honorific) Suu Kyi taking a few days out to say thanks to those in Australia who have supported her long and difficult struggle for democracy in the country now known as Myanmar, formerly called Burma, she has a much more practical and compelling agenda. In short, Suu Kyi wants the world to press Myanmar's still military-dominated government to amend the constitution to allow genuine democracy.

There is no doubt that Myanmar has embarked on a process of political reform over the past two years. Politically, it has only the barest resemblance to that dark and closed place of extensive human rights abuse that existed until recently.

But despite what appears to be the genuine, if sometimes misguided, efforts of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, war continues to rage against Kachin and Shan separatists in the north and north-east of the country. Other ethnic groups have made a temporary peace, or are looking to do so.

So, too, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, of Rhakine state, continue to be at the edge of the state’s tolerance. A related sentiment has also been expressed in anti-Muslim rioting closer to the country’s heartland, often with what has been perceived as intentionally too little state response.

Myanmar is, therefore, a state in transition. And it has, at this stage, only gone part of the way.

The 2008 constitution was voted on in an unobserved vote, as the country was still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Nargis. This allowed the regime to re-commit to a "Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy", enunciated first in 2003 by prime minister Kyin Nyunt, who was then sacked and jailed for having gone too far too soon.

Suu Kyi’s Australian -- and international -- campaign now is to have the necessary 75% of the government agree to change the constitution. In her first comments on Australian soil, she said this was necessary if Myanmar is to become a democracy.

Under the existing constitution, which bans ministers from having family members living overseas, Suu Kyi is barred from running for president. However, this also applies to some existing ministers and is, therefore, expected to be changed.

But more importantly, when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2015, the military will have reserved for it 25% of the seats in the Parliament. With just one more vote, the military will still control a veto over further constitutional change.

Based on the results of the 1990 elections, when the people of Myanmar had something akin to a real vote, the USDP could be expected to win at least about the same as, if not more than, its predecessor State Law and Order Restoration Council’s 20% of the vote. That would guarantee no constitutional change to remove a military veto over constitutional amendments.

To this could be added the vote of localised ethnically based parties, which are no friends of Suu Kyi’s ethnic Burman National League for Democracy. Not only would Suu Kyi and her NLD not win enough of the vote to change the constitution, despite overwhelming public support, they would even be struggling to form a majority in Myanmar’s Parliament.

This constitutional rigging is Suu Kyi’s underlying message during her Australia visit.

Beyond rigging the parliamentary vote, Myanmar’s military controlled National Defence and Security Council sits above the Parliament and has the capacity to declare a state of emergency, in which it may dissolve the Parliament and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. This can only be changed via the constitution, which is rigged to disallow such a change.

So, during her visit to Australia, when Aung San Suu Kyi mentions "constitutional reform" or "change", she is not referring to some abstract principle. What Suu Kyi will be referring to is whether or not Myanmar becomes a democracy.

Can Aung San Suu Kyi turn Myanmar around?

Myanmar’s transition from authoritarianism has been given a boost by the announcement at the World Economic Forum meeting in Naypyitaw that Aung San Suu Kyi run for the presidency in 2015. Yet despite this unsurprisingly news and the world’s increasing acceptance of this once pariah state, deep structural problems look set to challenge the country’s reform process.

Myanmar must change its constitution to allow Suu Kyi to run by removing a ban on political leaders with family abroad. But this also applies to senior members of the current government, so that change is expected.

Myanmar’s recent seven-point agreement signed with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) has also been a step in addressing challenges to the country’s reform process. However, the agreement is, to date, just an agreement to limit fighting and to discuss a ceasefire. It is not yet a ceasefire, much less a comprehensive peace agreement. International reports of its success have been greatly exaggerated.

The KIO and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, have been fighting the central government since just after independence in 1948. Although it is the largest of Myanmar’s groups that have been fighting the central government, they are not alone.

Sporadic fighting also continues in Shan State South, and the Wa and Kokang autonomous regions continue to run narco-territories in the north-east of Shan State. These are now based mostly on amphetamines, which have largely replaced the more vulnerable opium.

The cultural and economic divide between the ethnic majority Bama (Burman) and Myanmar’s numerous minorities, including the 12 "ceasefire groups", remains as wide as ever. The people of central Myanmar continue to face serious poverty, but the outlying ethnic minorities experience even more debilitating conditions.

Lack of education is arguably the biggest problem facing the ethnic minorities, with Burman language teachers either refusing to work in non-Burman areas or leaving soon after they arrive. Without education, much less in a language they understand, minorities remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and alienation. This, in turn, pushes them into illegal trade and drives armed resistance to the government.

With continuing armed threats to the state, the army -- the Tatmadaw -- continues to be the state’s institutional centrepiece. This is what led to the military’s seizure of power five decades ago, and it continues to insinuate itself into Myanmar’s "reformist" future. Suu Kyi is seen as leading the reform movement, but her views on Myanmar’s ethnic problems and the unity of the state places her closer to the military than to most ethnic groups.

As with many developing countries, the Myanmar army is deeply involved in its own business interests, both to fund itself and to enrich its officers. As Myanmar opens to the outside world, military businesses are partnering with outside companies to take advantage of the new economic openness. The "reform" process makes good business sense to the country’s military and business elites, and this alone will ensure greater economic openness. It also reduces military accountability to a civilian government.

And not all are happy with the pace or direction of reform. While reflecting historical anti-Muslim sentiment, last week’s anti-Muslim rioting in Lashio and recent rioting in towns between north of Yangon up to Mandalay and, of course, in Rakhine State, is believed to have been organised by forces wishing to limit the reform process.

Such forces include Tatmadaw recalcitrants, but also associated business interests and the more chauvinistic of the Buddhist community, notably under the banner of the ultra-nationalist ‘969’ movement. In this contest for Myanmar’s future, the country is very unlikely to return to its dark past. But the reform process may not go as far as many are suggesting, or would like.

The path of Myanmar’s change is increasingly being acknowledged as less than direct, with a number of detours, an occasional dead end and some unhelpful excursions along the way.

After the 2015 elections, Myanmar is likely to have a more representative and less overtly military dominated government. But, until or unless it can resolve its ethnic issues, its reform process may remain crippled by the defects that are characterising its birth, President Aung San Suu Kyi or otherwise.

Myanmar's religious violence threatens reform agenda

Myanmar's reform program is being challenged by continuing anti-Muslim rioting, which has left 43 dead and hundreds injured in the past two weeks. The rioting has now extended beyond Rakhine State across central Myanmar (formerly Burma), with "well-organised" anti-Muslim riots in 11 Burmese cities and towns, including its second city of Mandalay, where a state of emergency has been declared, and to Pegu, just north of Rangoon.

Security forces have been accused of being unable or unwilling to control the rioting. Although Myanmar has long had a history of religious intolerance, there are also concerns the riots are being organised by factions opposed to the country's recent reforms. The anti-Muslim rioting by Buddhist nationalist extremists started in Rakhine State last December, where it left more than 180 dead. There have been reports of extremist Buddhists from Sri Lanka working with counterparts in Myanmar to promote a radical, religious-based, nationalist agenda. Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhist communities have long had close ties, with Sri Lanka's extremist Buddhists at the forefront of Sri Lanka's increasingly authoritarian turn.

The United Nations' human rights envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, says the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggests a possible state link to the fighting. "I have received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes," he said. "This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions."

A government spokesman has denied state involvement in the riots. President Thein Sein, who has instituted many of Myanmar's recent reforms, has warned he would use force if necessary to protect lives and property from the violence. He has said "political opportunists and religious extremists" have been involved in orchestrating the anti-Muslim violence.

While there is some possibility that religious extremists are taking advantage of Myanmar's increasing openness to press for a form of ethnic cleansing, there continues to be a military faction in the country's government opposed to its reform program. The anti-reform group has consistently been on the back foot over the past year, being replaced in senior government posts by pro-reform officers. However, the rise of religious violence has bolstered an anti-reform nationalist agenda.

Thein Sein has responded to the riots by convening a high-powered "committee" to identify and "take severe action" against the organisers of the riots. The "committee" is headed by Myanmar's Minister for Home Affairs, Lt. General Ko Ko, Aung Min (Thein Sein's "fix-it" minister without portfolio) and chief of police Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun.

Pariah Myanmar comes out as relations thaw

The four-day visit to Australia by Burmese President Thein Sein, the first by a Burmese leader since the country descended into self-imposed isolation in 1974, marks the increasing international acceptability of the once outcast state. Thein Sein's arrival in Australia on Sunday reciprocates a visit by Foreign Minister Bob Carr to Myanmar (formerly Burma) last year.

Thein Sein's visit to Australia reflects the quickening pace of deepening relations between Australia and Myanmar and Australia's support for Myanmar's reform process, including increased aid to more than $100 million over the next three years. Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama last November, marking the beginning of a rapid thaw in Myanmar's international relations and the ending of its international status as a pariah state.

Protesters in Australia have called on the Australian government to press the Burmese leader over continuing human rights concerns in Myanmar. These include continuing abuses by the military and police and two ethnic-based wars, in the northern Kachin State and Shan State. There has also been widespread international concern over attacks against ethnic Muslim Rohingyas in the western Rakhine State starting late last year, in which up to 2000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 80,000 displaced.

Thein Sein, a former general, was hand-picked for the presidency by hard-line predecessor General Than Shwe. Than Shwe is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including directing the violent crackdown against protesters, led by Buddhist monks, in 2007. It has become increasingly apparent Than Shwe handed power to Thein Sein to slowly transition the country towards a form of democracy. The exchange for this political transition was that senior military leaders would be protected from prosecution and the often substantial business interests of their families would remain unaffected.

Since assuming the leadership in 2011, Thein Sein has released political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and allowed the pro-democratic National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to compete in byelections, ahead of an open political competition in 2015.

The NLD recently held internal elections for candidates for the 2015 elections. Assuming the elections proceed without interference, it is widely expected the NLD will win a substantial majority. Thein Sein said last year he would be willing to hand over political power if the NLD achieved a parliamentary majority and Suu Kyi were elected president.

The Burmese leader's visit to Australia coincides with the launch of the Australia Myanmar Institute in Melbourne today. The AMI, a project between Deakin and Melbourne universities, is intended to develop a greater flow of information between Australia and Myanmar and to promote Myanmar's reform process.

Participants at the inaugural "Progress, Opportunities and Concerns in Myanmar's Transition" conference include two former Australian ambassadors to Myanmar, medical, legal and educational specialists, academics and businesses.

Myanmar’s International Recognition and the Needs of the Poor

(President Obama Meets With Burmese President Thein Sein. Addressing Myanmar's deep poverty and lack of basic services will be a fundamental challenge in developing the economy. Source: State Department's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work)

Burma's reform process more than just window dressing

For long-term Burma watchers, it has been easy to regard that country’s recent political changes as window dressing by an authoritarian regime hoping to attract investment without actually giving up power. There is no doubt, too, that the 2010 elections remained a very long way from being free and fair.

But the bi-elections in April this year did appear to offer a glimpse of a genuine reform process, with opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates winning 43 of the 44 seats contested. Burma’s President Thein Sein has since been feted around the world as a reformer, as has NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the symbol of hoped-for political change.

Since April, there have been numerous changes in Burma’s political and military leadership. To date, these changes have almost all seen the promotion of reformist officers or former officers and the side-lining of the government’s anti-reform faction.

Burma and the Stockholm Syndrome

There is a quickly developing sense that Burma, long an outcast in the international community, has begun a serious process of reform. It is as though the Burmese opposition, and the world behind it, are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, where a hostage comes to love the hostage taker following a small sign of kindness.
Burma’s human rights record over the past five decades has consistently been among the worst in the world. It is also one of the world’s biggest international drug suppliers.
To counter the damaging opprobrium this brings, the Burmese military-derived government has now released hundreds of political prisoners, signed a ceasefire with the country’s largest ethnic rebel group and has allowed the opposition National League for Democracy to re-form. The NLD has announced that it will challenge 23 of 48 vacant seats in by-elections to be held on 1 April.

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