An official visit to the United States by Myanmar’s President Thein Sein this week should not be regarded as a celebration of the success of reforms in Myanmar. The job is far from finished, with many tough challenges still to be tackled, with no guarantee of success or achievement.
Unless the discussions in Washington between Presidents Barack Obama and Thein Sein address the essence of genuine reform in Myanmar, the visit will be meaningless.
The US administration has to realise that the reform process in Myanmar badly needs a boost. Much more effort and energy is required to make the changes work for the ordinary people of the country, and not just business and political cliques. There are so many obstacles, with numerous individuals and groups resistant to change. The military is still the most powerful institution, and has the ability to derail the reform process at any time.
President Thein Sein should not regard this trip to the US as a reward ceremony. He should expect no prizes from Washington, since his reform mission is nowhere near its end, but in fact is still in its very early and fragile stage.
Of course, it is important to note that Thein Sein’s administration, since taking office in 2011, has made some strides toward democratisation and reconciliation. His regime has granted more room to the opposition, opened up participation in parliamentary politics and civil society, and allowed more freedom of expression in the media. The government has also initiated ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations with some of the armed ethnic groups.
The reforms are moving in the right direction, but the country is still far from its destination, and the speed of change in some areas is actually slowing. At the same time, many new issues and obstacles are emerging, with the high possibility of jeopardising the reform process.
The political atmosphere in Myanmar is certainly more relaxed now, but we still have not seen the inclusive participation of all parties in the political process. Some political prisoners have been released, but many are still in jail without a clear time line for when they will be able to walk free.
Ceasefire agreements have been reached with some of the rebel armies, but the sound of gunfire is still heard in battle zones in the Shan and Kachin states. Neither of these groups has been able to reach a genuine peace with the government. Talks over the past few months have been akin to a pretentious facade for the benefit of the international community. The negotiations are not even close to a “political dialogue” for national reconciliation.
The ethnic problems in Myanmar are complicated – perhaps too complicated to be solved in the near future. Recent communal clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims are indicative of this already-complex issue. Race issues alone are difficult to solve. Ethno-religious conflict is much more complex.
The role of the military in politics will be a crucial factor in the democratic development of the country. The 2008 constitution grants the military brass a broad veto right over civilian institutions. Myanmar’s military has yet to reveal its long-term intentions, or whether it can come to terms with civilian democracy. Thus, the idea of amending the constitution to make it more democratic might not materialise anytime soon.
Solving such problems will require international cooperation and support. Lifting the remaining economic and political sanctions, as President Thein Sein will ask the US to do, might not be enough to solve them.