Over the last few years, Myanmar has embarked on an ambitious set of reforms. After independence from Britain in 1948, the communist party of Burma and various ethnic groups soon took up arms against the central government, despite the introduction of parliamentary democracy. The military has sought to achieve national unity, but has done so by coercion and without achieving a viable political solution to deeply rooted ethnic conflicts.
When the military took power, it abolished democratic institutions and replaced them with the Revolutionary Council, chaired by General Ne Win. The Army led the country insulation, cutting off all contacts with the outside world, driving foreign companies out of the country and nationalizing all private enterprises.
In 1974, the junta pushed through a constitutional referendum to transition from direct military rule to indirect military rule. Thereafter, a socialist planned economy and one-party rule by Ne Win's Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) resulted in the resources rich country becoming one of the world's least-developed countries.
When the country began experiencing serious economic problems, Ne Win stepped down as President and was succeeded in office by his confident, retired General San Yu. However, Ne Win remained chairman to the country's only political party and continued to play a decisive behind the scenes role in formulating governmental policies.
In 1988, continued economic problems led to country-wide demonstrations and the collapse of the ruling party. However, the military staged a coup on 18 September 1988, killing thousands of people. General Saw Maung, then commander-in-chief of the defense forces, led the military junta while Ne Win remained influential behind the scenes.
The new military junta promised to hold free elections, which took place in May 1990. The opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under house arrest while the electoral campaign war underway. However, the elections resulted in her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), wining more than 80 of the parliamentary seats. Despites this clear victory for the opposition, the army refused to recognize the election results and continued to rule the country.
On the economic front, the new junta formally embraced market economic principles, but in practice continued to control the economy with poorly managed policies. Foreign investors have hesitated to invest in the country because of the unstable political situation there (e. g., violent minority conflicts and legal uncertainty) and because of concerns about their public image (e. g., fear of boycotts associated with the regime's human rights violations and repression of the democratic oppositions). Investments are primarily concentrated in the natural-resource extraction sectors, especially oil, gas, timber and gems, while other industries have received little attention.
While Western countries have imposed sanctions on Myanmar for the regime's refusal to democratize and for its systematic human rights abuses, neighboring Asian countries (including Thailand, China and India) have invested heavily. In 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi was released for the first time, but the authorities repeatedly prevented her from leaving the then capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), to undertake political activities elsewhere in the country.
The opposition leader was placed under house arrest again at the end of 2000 and was only released 19 months later. However, escalating tensions eventually led to another clampdown on the NLD and the redetection of Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2003.
The renewed house arrest triggered another outcry of criticism from the international community. The United States and the European Union have further tightened their sanctions on Myanmar and demanded that all political prisoners be relapsed.
In response to the international criticism, in September 2003, the military announced its roadmap to democracy, which envisions a 'disciplined democracy' for the further. The government resurrected the constitution-drafting process, which had come to a halt in 1996.
The national convention, which convened from 2004 to 2007 in order to draft a new constitution, was given detailed guidelines so as to safeguard the military's dominant position. According to the new constitution promulgated in late 2007, the military will selected the head of state and important state ministers, receive 25% of the seats in both houses and have the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power at any time.
In May 2008, even during the cyclone crisis, the new constitution was ratified with a (consent of 92.4% in a 9rigged) referendum, and elections were announced for 2010. Although these elections will bring a transition to civilian rule, the new government will be very much influenced by the military.
Since the military is restricting participation and contestation, it cannot be called a genuine transition to democracy but, instead, must be viewed as an attempt to give the military regime a higher legitimacy through (probably rigged) elections as well as to shield if from the international criticism of its change of leadership in 1988, which ushered in a new phase of economic transformation. In order to avoid becoming direct victims of the country's economic distress and the mass demonstrations it might trigger, Myanmar's leaders formally embraced a market economy, but this strategy failed.
However, Myanmar political and economic changes occur in the midst of Asian economic integration and regional change. The Asian Economic Community (AEC) is scheduled to be completed in 2015 which is based on the pillars of a single market and production base, a competitive region, a region of equitable development and a region connected to the global economy.
Since the inception of the AEC blueprint in 2007, a great deal of integration measures have been agreed and implemented trade liberalization in services investment and free movement of capital have made significant progress while liberalization of trade in goods in practically completed. This liberalization and de-regulation have been accompanied by trade and investment facilitation, standardization of customs procedures towards ASEAN single window, standards and conformance and mutually recognized agreement (MRAs). As a member of ASEAN, Myanmar has agreed and initiated the required measures and domestic change as required by the AEC blueprint to achieve the AEC by 2015.
A certain political era has begun, brining both opportunities and new challenges in quick order. Many needs can be listed and, ultimately political solutions must be agreed. But for this to be achieved, it is vital that ethnic issues are prioritized at the centre of national politics; activities are broadened at the community levels to strengthen the participation of civil society; and transparency about peace strategies and initiatives is made a bedrock for all political military and economic actions be the different sides.
There are more than 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar, each with its own history, culture and language. In Myanmar, bamar are 68%, Shan are 9%, Kayin are 7%, Rakhine are 3.5%, Chinese are 25%, Mon are 2%, Kachin are 1.5%, Indians are 1.25%, Kayah are 0.75% and other groups including Wa, Naga, Lahu, Lisu and Palaung are 4.5%. (www.myanmar-embassy-tokyo.net/about.htm) The majority Burman (Bamar) ethnic group makes up about two-thirds of the population and controls the military and the government.
The minority ethnic nationalities, making up the remaining one-third, live mainly in the resource-rich border areas and hills of Burma, although many have been forcibly removed from their homes by the military backed government as it confiscates land for development projects and resource exploitation. As a result, millions of people from the minority groups have become internal displace people (IDP) within Burma, or Refugees in neighboring countries.
In Myanmar, constitutional amendments are essential if the present political system is to be made to work and truly represent all peoples. In particular, ethnic political parties want to establish a federal system that guarantees their political, economic, social cultural and religious rights. Furthermore, the reservation of a quarter of all seats in the legislatures for Tatmadaw appointees is an undemocratic anomaly that requires reform agreement between political and military leaders.
The writer is s Researcher, International Affairs.
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