Has Myanmar’s reform process stalled?

Has Myanmar’s reform process stalled?

The pace of reform in Myanmar has slowed, notes TREVOR WILSON—but the reasons for this call for a considered assessment, not just a politically oriented one.

Myanmar’s best known citizen, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, gave a press conference in Yangon on 5 November 2014. According to media reports, she expressed her concern that Myanmar’s reform process had stalled. She questioned whether any major positive changes had happened in the last 24 months. She was speaking in her capacity as Chairperson of the National League for Democracy. As a political statement, what Suu Kyi said about Myanmar’s reforms was not unexpected.

Myanmar’s initial reforms, beginning in March 2011, were dramatic and surprised everyone, but they are still incomplete and not always operating well. Many problem areas, such as land reforms, judicial system reform and ending human rights abuses, have not yet undergone reform, meaning that much unfinished business remains.

Reports that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was concerned by perceived Myanmar government backtracking and lack of further progress on reforms had been circulating for several months. These concerns were, not surprisingly, picked up by international activist groups where high expectations of Myanmar’s reform process were not always realistic. But in her 5 November press conference, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she was not concerned by any backtracking as such.

Pace of reform

The pace of reform in Myanmar has certainly slowed, but whether or not this is the result of a reduced commitment to reform calls for a considered assessment, not just a politically oriented one. Moreover, to say that nothing much in the way of major reform happened during 2013–14 is not accurate. To give just one example, from 1 April 2013, private daily newspapers were authorised for the first time since 1964, and from the outset they operated without direct censorship under the press freedom reforms put in place under the Thein Sein Government. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s 5 November 2014 press conference was reported in these very newspapers.

In fact, a large number of new long-term government reform plans were developed during 2013 and 2014, although most did not call for immediate new policy changes. In quick succession, it produced the ‘first’ Five-Year Plan (2011–16); the long-term National Comprehensive Development Plan (2011–31); the Myanmar National Spatial Development Plan containing goals for urban development; the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan (2013–20); the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013–22); and the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (2014–20). This was also the first time in more than two decades that the leading international financial institutions returned to Myanmar, and that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) normalised its operations in Myanmar.

Restarting basic Myanmar programs by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) demanded higher standards of long-term, nationwide planning, on which the Myanmar government had to take the lead. During 2012–14, the Thein Sein government, for the first time, negotiated several entirely new, substantive long-term programs with UN and other international agencies which, under sanctions, had previously been prevented from funding normal programs in Myanmar.

These new long-term programs target substantial institutional and infrastructure gaps, together with offers of substantial funding, including: the Myanmar—Unlocking the Potential: Country Diagnostic Study with the ADB; a comprehensive democratic governance program with the UNDP, covering a number of specific rule-of-law reform programs; and the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management Project with the World Bank, to name but a few.

During 2013–14 alone, the World Bank agreed to fund projects worth several hundreds of million dollars for Myanmar’s public health services, telecommunications reforms, public sector financial management, decentralisation of education funding for schools and students, capacity enhancement and institutional strengthening in electric power generation, and for multiyear national projects, all of which do not end until 2018–19.

Key vehicles

These socioeconomic plans and infrastructure programs might not contain all the reforms that would be desirable or necessary for Myanmar, but they were prepared in processes that were thorough and more inclusive than ever before. Moreover, properly funded and technically supported, these plans and programs will become key vehicles for future reforms. Indeed, having the international agencies acting as the main implementers could even be a way of preserving the integrity and quality of reforms needed. (Not that the UN system always achieves that!)

The National League for Democracy (NLD) participated in many of the consultation processes on these plans and programs, either through Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself or via the parliament in which the NLD held seats after April 2012, or through the normal consultations that were conducted in all cases. Exactly how much impact the NLD had on discussions about specific laws and reforms during 2012–14 is not apparent, however.

While some of Myanmar’s reforms are undoubtedly not working as well as they should, or even as intended, it is not correct to characterise those already undertaken as just cosmetic or merely symbolic.

Some significant political reforms were certainly initiated in the 2012–14 period. Negotiations with all insurgent and ethnic groups were begun under the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, launched in March 2012; most political prisoners, many of whom have resumed political activity quite prominently, were released; and the former military regime’s black list of overseas banned persons was abolished in August 2012. More recently, on 18 October 2014, one key policy reform was released in draft form, the much-awaited Draft National Land Use Policy.

Most important of all, political reconciliation between the authorities and the opposition—the informal understanding between President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—was cemented through the first-ever modern-day political leaders’ meeting with the Burmese Army leadership, convened by President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw on 31 October 2014.

While some of Myanmar’s reforms are undoubtedly not working as well as they should, or even as intended, it is not correct to characterise those already undertaken as just cosmetic or merely symbolic. They are reforms that will help change once and for all the constricting mindset of the last 50 years in Burma/Myanmar.

Reflecting on the pattern of Myanmar’s reform process since 2011, it seems that many early reforms were quickly and relatively easily implemented with a top-down decision or announcement, such as the exchange rate/ currency unification changes of 1 April 2012. Now, by contrast, remaining areas for reform are complex. They involve many levels of stakeholders or interested parties who need to be consulted and and also need to comprehend sizeable legal and/or technical issues. The reforms are not susceptible to quick or easy implementation, and will cost more to introduce. This is why the pace of reforms has slowed so noticeably. But it does not mean that work on further reforms has stopped, or that completed reforms are being reversed. Responding adequately to the very high expectations for reforms has simply become a more challenging task.

More time

The Thein Sein government point of view, that Myanmar needs time, was argued eloquently in an opinion piece in the New York Times of 13 November 2014 by the Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs in the President’s Office, and former Chief of the Myanmar Navy, U Soe Thane.

According to the New York Times (14 November 2014), during President Obama’s November 2014 visit to Myanmar for the East Asian Summit, he ‘reassured Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi of America’s support for her and for Myanmar’s steps toward reform, despite evidence of backsliding in its transition from military dictatorship’.

It should also be remembered that although Myanmar’s political leadership was not facing direct challenge after 2010, nor was Myanmar confronting a peaceful situation either: a 17-year ceasefire in Kachin State had broken down in June 2011, anti-Muslim communal violence erupted in many parts of the country on an unprecedented scale after mid-2012; and long-running insurgencies with groups such as the Karen and some Shan groups continued intermittently.

With reforms failing elsewhere in the world—in some parts of Eastern Europe, and the fading promise of the Arab Spring in the Middle East—Myanmar’s leaders might have wondered what else was in store for them and what other unanticipated political risks they might have to face.

Gordon Johnstone, Wikimedia Commons

Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.

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