Myanmar: More of the Same? Nowhere Else to Go?


Trevor Wilson

None of Myanmar's problems are diminished or improved at the time of writing, yet an air of inevitability now surrounds the State Peace and Development Council's political agenda. It has been announced that the National Convention has completed three quarters of its tasks, and participants expect that the Convention will, at most, have two more working meetings, one substantive session in October 2006, with a slight possibility of a formal 'wrap-up' session early next year. This would allow a referendum on a new constitution to be held in the second half of 2007. Drafting of the constitution is said to be already well under way, and once adopted, it will, possibly in early 2008, pave the way for a general election, the rules for which are not yet known. This attenuated process, frustrating for ordinary Burmese and the international community alike, reflects the SPDC's wishes to move slowly rather than necessarily indicating any major obstacles. Yet, while the National Convention has been widely criticised outside Myanmar, and might not meet Western standards of proper political process, some Burmese inside and outside Myanmar, see it as the only realistic way forward.

Domestically, the SPDC's objective remains to stifle political opposition, while promoting its own surrogate grass-roots organisations. It continues its relentless campaign against the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, repeating repressive tactics it has employed in the past (such as forced mass 'resignations' of NLD members). Yet not all political activity is suppressed; some, like prominent recently released political prisoner Min Ko Naing, are allowed to carry out non-threatening low-key political activities. The SPDC has, for the moment, stopped its military onslaught against its arch-enemy the Karen National Union, but this is likely to resume in the next dry season later this year, with the main KNU stronghold a possible target. However, the SPDC has not yet made noticeable progress in settling unfinished business with other ethnic groups, including those with whom it previously concluded ceasefire agreements. In the meantime, government functions in the 'secret' new capital Naypyitaw seem to be becoming more regularised. Yet none of these actions presages a full solution to Myanmar's nagging political problems.

Economically, the SPDC is fighting vainly against sharp price rises for staple foodstuffs, using its standard crude tactics of demanding price cuts by rice and edible oil traders and prosecuting non-compliers. Typically, it is struggling to deal with the adverse effects of escalating inflation, caused partly by its own increases in petrol prices and government salaries. Simultaneously, it continues its surrealistic forced campaign to plant a bio-fuel crop, without evidence of credible plans to process, distribute and use the product. Although the economy continues to slide, poverty to spread, and inefficiencies to grow, the SPDC recently announced a new, potentially significant phase in its almost forgotten privatisation program, and is launching a concerted, badly needed, campaign against corruption. But overall, no solution to Myanmar's serious economic woes is in sight.

Continued efforts of pro-democracy supporters and segments of the international community have failed to gain much traction this year. Recent ASEAN activity, such as the mid-August visit to Myanmar by Philippines Foreign Minister Romulo and the late July annual ASEAN Ministerial meetings, also lacked focus and provided little hope for any shift in the SPDC's approach. More calls for wider sanctions rang hollow after the August official launch of the 'Three Diseases Fund' (involving Australia, the EU and Japan) restoring most of the assistance Myanmar qualified for under the cancelled Global Fund for HIVAIDS, Malaria and TB program. Whether the United Nations can take meaningful action on Myanmar remains to be seen, although another visit to Myanmar by UN Deputy Secretary-General Gambari is in prospect and could provide an opportunity for launching a more direct and targeted engagement.

WATCHPOINT: The SPDC's political moves over the next year will be critical in determining Myanmar's future political arrangements, and most importantly, whether these arrangements can generate sufficient trust and provide a stable basis for normalising the situation.


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