Once an international pariah ruled by a repressive military regime, Myanmar has in recent months become one of Southeast Asia’s hottest destinations.
Last year, a nominally civilian government took over and began political changes in the country also known as Burma. Now, foreign investors and tourists are flooding in, and foreign governments are considering lifting their sanctions.
In stark contrast to the uprisings that have shaken the Arab world, Myanmar’s metamorphosis is occurring from the top down. But crucial questions remain unanswered, and it’s unclear whether the changes are permanent.
One place to look for clues is in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital, which replaced Yangon. Dominating the government town is a massive complex of buildings housing the country’s parliament.
The country’s 2008 constitution mandated the parliament. Before the legislature’s members were elected just over a year ago, the law was essentially whatever the generals said it was.
Saw Nyein Thin, an ethnic Karen lawmaker dressed in traditional red and white garb, says that the fledgling institution still has a long way to go.
“This parliament is not yet strong enough to legislate effectively,” he says. “It’s still too young. But I think that it will gradually accumulate enough power to do its job.”
Despite being dominated by the ruling party and the military, which hold 80 percent of the seats, the parliament has passed laws legalizing street protests and labor unions. It’s now drafting a press law, which the government says will ease censorship.
Even bigger changes may be in store. On April 1, voters will elect 48 new lawmakers, one of whom is likely to be pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel laureate was released from house arrest in November 2010.
Her party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the last elections, which it called a sham. But the government is considering inviting international observers and promises that the vote will be genuine.
Reformists In Military Uniforms?
Shwe Mann, the third-ranking general in the previous military regime, tells foreign and Myanmar reporters covering the parliament that the upcoming elections must be “free, fair and credible.”
Shwe Mann is now speaker of the lower house of parliament and, it appears, a leader of the reformists.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who has met with Myanmar’s leaders under both the new and old regimes, says that when they took off their generals’ uniforms, they seemed to shed their old political views, too.
“Not only physically, in appearance, but in terms of mindset, [the generals were] very much set in their ways and very militaristic in outlook, authoritarian,” he observes. “But now without prodding, they would bring up issues that would in the past have been taboo.”
One theory is that Shwe Mann and President Thein Sein were actually closet liberals within the military regime. That’s the opinion of Hla Maung Shwe, vice president of Myanmar Egress, a Yangon-based civic group trying to mediate between the ruling and opposition parties.
“For some time, these reformists have wanted to change the country,” he explains, “but because of the political system that was in place, they couldn’t make it happen. But now that they’re in positions of power, they’re beginning to do it.”
In Yangon, veteran journalist Thiha Saw says that as Burmese leaders have traveled to neighboring countries, they’ve become increasingly troubled at how far their country lags behind the rest of the region and how poorly their traditional reliance on China has paid off. Myanmar is important to China as a source of raw materials and as a strategic “back door” giving the country direct access to the Indian Ocean.
“They’ve been friendly with the Chinese for so many years,” says Thiha Saw. “[The] Chinese provided them almost everything, from weapons to shoes to plastics to whatever. But then all throughout these years, they may have realized that they don’t get too much, they get very little.”
Thiha Saw says both the media and the parliament played a crucial role last year in alerting Thein Sein to the zeal with which ordinary Burmese opposed the Chinese-invested Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River. Thein Sein’s decision last September to shelve the project was widely hailed by Burmese as a victory.
Since last summer, Thiha Saw says, rules requiring media to get censors’ approval before publishing have been eased. Aung San Suu Kyi and other once-taboo topics are now splashed all over the front pages.
Whether this means there will be freedom of the press is still a big question, Thiha Saw says, though he predicts U.S.-style freedom of the press is unlikely.
“What we’ll get is something more similar to some ASEAN neighbors like Indonesia [and] Malaysia,” he says.
At least in this respect, he says, Myanmar appears to be moving toward the sort of soft authoritarian systems favored by its regional neighbors, especially Singapore, where the government refrains from overt censorship, but occasionally hits troublesome journalists with libel lawsuits.
Eyes On Myanmar
Natalegawa, the Indonesian foreign minister, points out that Myanmar will have to face greater international scrutiny when it assumes the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in 2014.
The decision last year to give Myanmar the chairmanship, he adds, was not so much a reward for its accomplishments as an inducement to live up to international expectations.
“It’s not a vote of confidence on how Myanmar is today,” he says. “But it’s actually our expectation of how it will be in 2014.”
Between now and then, he says, there are bound to be setbacks, even as the reforms go forward.
Myanmar’s rulers say the reforms are irreversible. But the 2008 constitution allows the military to claim emergency powers and exercise them with complete impunity. And if the government reneged on its promises of change and rolled back the reforms, it would not be the first time in recent history that this has happened.