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 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.