Trevor Wilson is a Visiting Fellow with the Department of Political and Social Change at ANU.
Eighteen months have passed since Myanmar's political transition began and its new president, Thein Sein, set about a process of far-reaching reform. Most observers, including the people of Myanmar, were surprised by the speed and extent of the reform agenda: free by-elections, the lifting of print media censorship, freedom of assembly and trade unions, as well as some significant economic reforms.
Most striking has been the return of vigorous parliamentary government, the like of which has not been seen in Myanmar for 60 years. Not only have most of Myanmar's political prisoners been released, but dissent is now openly encouraged.
Other commentators, accustomed to exposing Myanmar's human rights abuses, military repression of minorities and quashing of democracy advocates such as Aung San Suu Kyi, wondered whether Myanmar's reforms were genuine or whether they might be reversed. They correctly highlighted unresolved problems such as sectarian violence against the Rohingya, the new government's failure to end insurgency and the incomplete state of most reforms. Some international observers focused on ongoing problems and the amount of unfinished business, questioning positive assessments of Myanmar's situation. However, fears that reforms would be blocked by military conservatives or reversed before being fully implemented have not materialised.
Some changes in Myanmar are incontrovertible. We now see a new level of national reconciliation between Myanmar's former military leaders and opposition politicians, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, who has taken up a seat in the parliament and assumed the chair of its committee on the rule of law. Some prominent Burmese expatriates are returning to Myanmar for the first time in more than 20 years and sometimes staying to contribute directly to nation building or engaging in open discussion of change and reform even during brief visits.
Economic reforms have already strengthened Myanmar's financial system: the exchange rate has been 'unified' and the currency black market eliminated; international credit card payments have begun; banks have opened automatic teller machines. While there is still a long way to go before other important economic reforms are bedded down, key preliminary steps have been taken.
We also see for the first time a new decentralised polity, 'federalism' if you will, where formal recognition is given (in the 2008 constitution and the new parliamentary structures) to state-ethnic aspirations for some autonomy, and the army no longer directly runs regional or central governments. It is taking a little time to bed down administrative arrangements to implement these changes, however. And the very mixed progress of political peace negotiations between the central government and ethnic groups has also contributed to delay. President Thein Sein has made it clear that peace agreements are a high priority but ethnic groups are struggling to find a united front.
Myanmar's government has announced that it welcomes international assistance in achieving its socio-economic reforms, seeks foreign investment to improve its economic development and reduce poverty, and encourages international contributions to overcome gaps in health and education. In the meantime, it has hosted many high-level international visitors seeking to observe matters for themselves, while expanding existing relationships with China, ASEAN, the US, Japan and the UN.
Most members of the international community, including importantly the international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, are considering support for deep structural changes that Myanmar acknowledges it needs. Some in Myanmar are concerned that it is taking time for the World Bank and the ADB to produce new programs for Myanmar that would gain popular support. It is only a matter of time before the few remaining economic sanctions are withdrawn, allowing the US in particular to implement a full assistance program.
The benefits of reforms have not yet been experienced. In major speeches in June 2012, President Thein Sein sought to mobilise internal support for a 'second wave' of reform, and for new social protections, and acknowledged that effective reforms require time. Thein Sein has said he expects to remain president until the next elections, which are scheduled for 2015, but not necessarily beyond that time.
The decision by a rare general meeting of the military-backed Union Solidarity & Development Party in October 2012 to retain Thein Sein and the current party leadership team is strong evidence that the push for reform is firmly part of the majority agenda and is not being challenged from within.
Yet already, Myanmar is becoming a 'normal' country in ways that were unthinkable two years ago, with unprecedented openness and inclusiveness about government processes. Transparency, one of the hallmarks of democratic practices, has arrived as foreign journalists visit more frequently, and the 'teak curtain' that kept Myanmar a closed society for so many years has been lifted. Social media are operating in Myanmar despite low rates of internet penetration, and the handling of public issues is more contested and sometimes more 'fraught'. Domestic difficulties are aired increasingly openly, yet government leaders are making public specific commitments to ongoing reform for which they now expect to be accountable.
Photo by Flickr user Burma Democratic Concern.