A tale of two Myanmars
KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — It is easy to imagine that there are two countries called Myanmar.
One is the Myanmar of the big cities and the Burmese heartland. Here, recent reforms – which have seen political prisoners released, demonstrations tolerated, and Aung San Suu Kyi elected to Parliament – have caused excitement, even euphoria. Despite ongoing and severe economic problems, there is a perception that the wind of change is blowing.
The other is the Myanmar of the ethnic minorities. Here an entirely different dynamic is dominant, fuelled by uncertainty and fear. In some places armed conflict continues. In others, inter-communal violence has erupted.
This dual reality formed a recurring theme at the Myanmar Roundtable held on 19 June at Monash University, Sunway Campus.
Organised by the School of Arts and Social Sciences, and entitled “Which Way From Here? Assessing the Road Ahead for Burma/Myanmar and ASEAN”, the half-day event brought together academics from several Malaysian universities, experienced practitioners, and members of the Burmese community.
As participants made clear, Myanmar’s current duality informs both hope and caution.
The sense that something is moving, after years of military-dominated political stalemate, certainly inspires optimism. One recent visitor reported that people are talking much more freely about political developments. Perennially careful ex-diplomats have become more open, and the security personnel who once haunted hotel lobbies have faded away.
As one participant pointed out, we do not know the exact combination of political pressure, economic necessity, and geostrategic realignment that has caused the changes, but the results are positive for the people and the region.
But even in this Myanmar, many doubts linger. “I am as excited as everybody about what’s happening,” the same participant continued. “But I think I would temper that with a little bit of caution, because these are still very early small steps. The key issue is whether they will continue or not – and it’s still too early to say.”
Contributors registered two major concerns. Even if the current reforms are successful, the real hard work is only just beginning. Myanmar has fallen so far behind – economically, legislatively, institutionally, and educationally – that a major catch-up process is now needed on all fronts.
And even if reforms continue, the result may not look like a Western-style democracy any time soon. For inspiration on how to prolong a military-centred political system, or how to promote economic growth while still retaining political control, the military may be more inclined to look at the Indonesian model of the Suharto era, or the current Chinese model.
As one participant warned, we are now confronting “a mismatch of very high expectations and the reality on the ground”.
Another contributor noted, “We welcome the changes … But the litmus test for Burma will come in 2015 when the next round of elections is held.” Will the military and their close associates, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, allow for a free, fair, and inclusive election? And will they be prepared to play second fiddle if they lose?
Most sobering, however, was the discussion of that other Myanmar, the Myanmar of the ethnic minorities.
Delegates were unanimous in stressing the need for genuine national reconciliation if lasting peace is to be achieved. But this will not be easy. The difficulty of fairly incorporating Myanmar’s numerous people groups into the national political process is one that long predates military rule.
Ceasefires with armed ethnic groups are not sufficient. As one Burmese contributor commented, they are all too often Tom-and-Jerry-style arrangements, where parties agree today, only to fight again tomorrow. What is needed is a tripartite dialogue between the army, the ethnic communities, and the democratic forces.
Injecting hope into this often neglected aspect of the current Myanmar story must remain an important part of external diplomacy and pressure, participants said.
One underlined: “I think the US and other Western countries, in their enthusiasm to support [President] Thein Sein and the reform, must not lose their focus on the requirement to put this national reconciliation process in place. I’ve
yet to see that happening.”
Clearly, the president and other forces for change need support. “But the Americans and Western countries must not lift their eyes from the need for the resolution of the ethnic conflicts.”
As one member of an ethnic minority community poignantly put it: “We accept they are already reforming, and are still on the way, and it will take a lot of time. But we also pray for our government that one day they will change – really change.”
The Myanmar Roundtable is part of a wider program of seminars and discussions on Southeast Asian political and cultural themes offered by the School of Arts and Social Sciences.