(9 December 2011) — Myanmar got its clearest invitation to return to the global community when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country on November 30 to support “a movement for change”.
The country’s first visit by an American state secretary in 50 years followed a series of extraodinary moves by the military-backed government that included talks with
Aung San Suu Kyi, who led her party to a landslide elections victory in 1990, shortly before the military junta seized power.
The reform-minded moves also included bringing in a law that gives workers the right to strike, and releasing more than 200 political prisoners.
On November 25, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy applied to re-register as a political party, paving the way for the icon for democracy to stand in the by-elections early next year.
Myanmar, in its campaign to re-engage with the world, has come a long way from the enforcement of martial law in 1988 in response to demonstrations calling for an end to military rule.
At the time, the military regime formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council and ordered multi-party elections, which saw Suu Kyi’s party win 392 out of the 485 parliamentary seats in May 1990 — despite her being under house arrest.
However, in June 1990, council chief Saw Maung ruled out an immediate power transfer, saying that a new constitution was needed first. The following month, the council issued declaration 1/90, empowering the elected representatives with “the responsibility to draw up the constitution of the future democratic state”.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy objected to this as the legislature had been elected to form a national government, and not to be a constituent assembly. In response, the military regime started to arrest political party leaders for refusing to comply with 1/90.
In March 2010, however, the first whiff of reform arrived in Myanmar.
After two decades of absolute military rule, a 17-member election commission was named to oversee fresh polls, in a move that was greeted with scepticism by the rest of the world.
The commission was headed by a former military officer described as a hard-liner and came with new laws that prohibited those with criminal convictions or who are members of religious orders from belonging to a political party.
This effectively disqualified from elections jailed political activists, including many National League for Democracy leaders, as well as Buddhist monks who led the anti-government protests in 2007.
Suu Kyi, who had spent most of the last two decades under detention, was released on November 13, 2010, six days after the elections.
Her party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the elections because the electoral rules would have forced it to expel its imprisoned party members.
The elections brought to power a nominally civilian government dominated by the army and its proxies. Amid allegations of widespread fraud by opposition groups, the military leadership said the elections stood for Myanmar’s transition from military rule to a civilian democracy.
More signs of reforms came in January this year, as the government authorised Internet connection for Suu Kyi, a major tool for her to garner international support.
In March, Senior General Than Shwe, who was chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, formerly the State Law and Order Restoration Council, resigned as head of state in favour of his trusted lieutenant Thein Sein.
Under President Thein Sein, the pace of reforms speeded up. The government released more political prisoners, eased media censorship and stopped coercing armed ethnic groups to join the nation’s Border Guard Force.
Myanmar also legalised labour unions, freed the Internet of government censorship and began a programme to revamp the banking system, leading to the arrival of automated teller machines in some banks this year.
In September, the government suspended a China-backed dam project in northern Kachin state to “respect the will of the people” — a rare concession to public pressure that surprised analysts in the west, as well as China, Myanmar’s strongest ally during its international isolation.
In November, just four years after the bloody putdown of protests by Buddhist monks, Myanmar’s parliament approved a law that guarantees the right to protest, albeit with conditions. Protests remain prohibited at factories, hospitals and government offices, and permission to protest must be sought five days earlier, with details of slogans and speakers provided. Staging a protest without permission carries a penalty of one year in prison.
No reason has been given for the regime’s sudden change of heart.
President Thein Sein himself was a member of the military junta and recently maintained at a press conference that “there are no political prisoners; all those who are in jail have broken the law”.
His comment sparked fears that Myanmar’s reforms were a cosmetic exercise designed to win global support.
“There is some risk that they may not continue to change,” Aung Din, a former political prisoner who now leads the US Campaign for Burma advocacy group, told Reuters.
Even Suu Kyi said it was too early to reward the regime for a job half done. “I haven’t changed my mind on sanctions,” she told Associated Press on November 30.
In the US, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to emphasise that Myanmar’s leaders must do more to reform, release more political prisoners and end long-running conflicts in ethnic-minority areas.
“One of the reasons that I’m going is to test what the true intentions are and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform,” Clinton told CNN on the eve of her Myanmar visit.
It is too early to draw any conclusions about the reforms in Myanmar. However even government officials note that they are in line with the political winds of change sweeping across the world.
“The president was convinced about the global situation; he saw where the global stream was heading,” U Nay Zin Latt, adviser to President Thein Sein, told the New York Times, alluding to people’s movements like the Arab Spring, which is posing a challenge to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
The world now waits to see where Myanmar is heading.