As Thailand slides backwards, its neighbour can make a leap forward for the region - only by kick-starting stalled reforms
Reform might be a never-ending process but, despite fears, Myanmar is unlikely to run out of energy to push forward its agenda for democracy and national reconciliation.
President Thein Sein has done a good job since he took the helm in 2011 and began reforms to open the economy and politics, as well as announcing peace talks with the many warring ethnic groups in the country.
The economy has been opened to an extent, politics has been freed from the grip of the military, and ethnic groups are queuing up to call truces and talk politics with the government.
However, many tasks have proceeded at snail pace since the country began chairing Asean this year and preparing for a general election next year.
While foreign investment has poured in to the economy over the past few years, many needed laws and amendments have yet to be issued, while construction of infrastructure to facilitate the investment inflow is also lagging. The delays suggest the government in Nay Pyi Taw might have run out of ideas on what to do next for economic development.
A recent UN survey indicated that the reforms have done little to tackle one major and longstanding problem – corruption. About 20 per cent of the more than 3,000 firms questioned identified corruption as a “very severe obstacle” to their operations, according to the UN Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Access to skilled labour and technology shortfalls were identified as the second- and third-biggest obstacles. Sixty per cent of the firms surveyed said they had to pay bribes for registration, licences or permits. About half the firms said they paid US$500 in extra fees, while about a dozen said extra fees exceeded $10,000 (Bt326,000).
And it seems the reforms’ benefits have not yet trickled down to ordinary people. Many have fallen victim to land grabs by state agencies, the military and private companies. Despite several high-profile protests, the government has failed to deliver a clear solution for those who have lost or are losing their homes.
On the political front, the election to parliament of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a positive sign, but it didn’t mean democracy had taken firm root in Myanmar. Thein Sein has agreed to amend the military-sponsored Constitution to make it more democratic, but that could be shot down by conservative figures in the military. UN human-rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana has expressed concern over the military’s veto power on constitutional changes.
The 2008 Constitution, which was drawn up by the military junta, mandates that the military holds 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, thus guaranteeing its power to veto any proposed change in the charter or other laws.
Current clauses in the charter also bar Suu Kyi from becoming president – because she was married to a foreigner.
The election is a year away, but the current Constitution will not enable a result that genuinely reflects the will of the people.
As current chair of Asean, Myanmar has an opportunity to advise neighbouring Thailand, whose military staged a coup last week, on good governance. But Nay Pyi Taw can only uphold a model of democracy for the whole region by taking the lead itself.