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Myanmar desperately needs talks between old guard and new democrats

The question for Myanmar now is, how can our poor country move forward? Under more than half a century of military rule we fell from being the richest country in Southeast Asia to one of its poorest.

Despite Myanmar's ongoing democratic reforms, the people have become poorer in the last three years and their hopes have dimmed considerably.

Added to this is the huge number of poor Myanmar immigrants working in foreign countries. We export more housemaids and prostitutes than most other countries, and our women are also being sold into forced marriages in China. Our country lacks international dignity.

In such circumstances, it is not easy to imagine a better life. We have suffered growing political divisions and increasing economic and social disparity over the last 60 years. Suspicion and hatred abounds between our citizens.

Unnecessary propaganda campaigns are being waged to "defend nationality and religion". I am a supporter of our nation, but how can we defend nationality, religion and the monkhood in such a poor, substandard country?

The violent consequences of these campaigns are strong evidence of the desperation the majority experience in everyday life. On Eleven Media Group's 11th anniversary in 2011, I urged the country to open its doors and to counter the negative influence of China and re-engage with the international community. I also urged it to build a genuine national union that includes all ethnic groups, to release all political prisoners, and begin the arduous task of national reconciliation.

There is good reason to hope that our country will reclaim its position as a valued member the international community. We had a lot of expectations when Thein Sein became president. He was, after all, distanced from the taint of corruption that has plagued the military establishment. Our country, it seemed, could continue to go forward under the leadership of President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the public voice of our national aspirations.

However, it seems that our hopes are slowly being dashed one after the other as the years go by. How did this situation come to pass? We must review the facts and make an honest assessment.

Most of the country is still mired in poverty brought by conflicts that continue to damage the people's lives and property. The Rakhine conflict and Meikhtila riots shamed Buddhism and Myanmar citizens, as did the violent crackdown on protests against the Letpadaungtaung copper mine. People behind the scenes are profiting from others' misery, becoming rich while the poor get steadily poorer.

The people have little remaining hope for a better future. The desperation among our youth is worse than in previous generations.

Although changes are being made, those responsible for our current conflicts are the country's leaders.

Mismanagement and corruption are the main causes of damage being done to our country. Those implicated are often less willing to let go of influence, which is why we have former dictators who still cling on to power. We also have new dictators who are profiting from the system already in place and who continue to take bribes. They look after their own interests, while our hopes get destroyed.

A recent example saw the government side offer armed ethnic groups permits to import cars tax-free in exchange for signing preliminary ceasefire agreements. What does this say about mismanagement when our country squanders 600 billion kyats (Bt19.6 billion) in taxes while parliament only allocates 10 billion kyats to support the peace process? What does this say about corruption and the peace process?

In the United States or any other democratic country, a government that irresponsibly squanders its budget at the expense of education and health is regarded as immoral.

Behind this mismanagement and corruption, there are people clinging to power who have created obstacles to amending the Constitution, which is the latest political crisis. These people mistrust the international community and the public, and this only contributes to the prevailing feeling of uncertainty that surrounds us today.

Politicians need to solve this in order to prevent the country from taking a U-turn. Negotiation on the constitution is especially vital for national reconciliation.

Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said recently that the National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, joined parliament according to the president's reform plan. This is a total fabrication. The people have suffered for more than 25 years since the 1988 uprising. They invested their expectations in the NLD in 1990 when they voted in a general election and gave the party a mandate. The people showed their approval again in 2012, renewing this mandate. So the NLD entered parliament due to the mandate of the people, not because of a reform-minded president.

It is important that the reform process continues smoothly so that military rule can transition to a fully civilian government in 2015. For the smooth emergence of a civilian government, the 2015 election needs to be free and fair, with the people given the right to choose their leader. For this, Section 59 (f) of the Constitution barring Suu Kyi from running for president must be amended. This is not Suu Kyi's right and nor is it the right of the NLD. It is the right of the people.

A federal union is also important for ethnic groups. The 1990 election was not fair and free. It was held under the military State Law and Order Restoration Council. People voted under the influence of fear and marshal law. Still, the opposition parties won 96 per cent of the seats. The NLD won a similar percentage in the 2012 by-elections.

It is important to speak straightforwardly and honestly in this vital period for national reconciliation. Unity between public representatives and former and current military leaders is essential. It is crucial that we carry on implementing democratic reforms peacefully and without bitterness or resentment. For that, Aung San Suu Kyi must meet the president, the house Speaker, and the commander-in-chief - or she must meet with former president Than Shwe, who supposedly still has power over those three men. Such dialogue is essential if our country is to move forward.

Dr Than Htut Aung is CEO of Myanmar's Eleven Media. This article is based on a speech he gave recently in Yangon.


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