Myanmar: Steady As She Goes, But Some Surprises

2005

Trevor Wilson

Just over three months ago a new cohort of military leaders in Myanmar swept aside the long-serving 'reformist' Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, and the military intelligence apparatus he headed. It was one of the most significant changes of personnel in the fifteen-year life of Myanmar's military regime.

As forecast in the December 2004 issue of Asian Analysis, subsequent actions by the new leadership demonstrated the inherent conservatism of the new leadership as it re-imposed even more centralised military control than at any time for decades. Yet the new leaders also took some surprising, even bold, steps - releasing more than 14,000 people from detention. They included some 30 political prisoners among whom was the 1988 student leader Min Ko Naing, whose release had long been demanded by opposition groups. Like amnesties granted under earlier military regimes, the Burmese people would welcome the releases even if the underlying reasons for them were not clear.

Obviously, one key aim of the October 2004 changes was to curb the excesses of military intelligence (MI), which tended to act as a law unto itself, frequently detaining security detainees as well as ordinary prisoners illegally and aggressively pursuing its own entrepreneurial interests in IT or tourism. This was accomplished by a bold stroke - the abolition of the (pre-SLORC) National Intelligence Bureau law, the removal, detention or charging of many senior MI personnel, and the closure of most MI enterprises.

However, the regime's new leaders have also demonstrated a considerable degree of policy continuity. They maintain their commitment to the national reconciliation process launched in August 2003, although they delayed reconvening the National Convention until early in 2005. They also reaffirmed their commitment to the various agreements negotiated with ethnic groups. These moves reflect a realisation that these political deals underpin the regime's interest in maintaining political stability.

The new leadership also maintained Myanmar's international commitments, participating in and/or hosting several high-level ASEAN meetings and government-to-government visits. Here they deliberately avoided surprises in order to retain such international support that the regime enjoys. Myanmar's chairing of ASEAN in 2006-07 is symbolically important, and the new leaders realise this could be jeopardised unless Myanmar shows its full commitment to ASEAN. But whether this means they would make concessions to ASEAN, or that ASEAN would seek these, is not clear.

Such continuity is no surprise, since some of the new leaders have participated personally in many of the SPDC ongoing policy approaches. Prime Minister Lt General Soe Win heads the regime's grass-roots organisation, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), and Lt General Thein Sein, Secretary One of the SPDC, chaired the National Convention from its outset.

Yet contradictions still characterise regime policy. Its initial actions were closed and inward looking, denying permission to some foreigners to work with international NGOs and restricting some previously permitted travel by foreigners inside the country. But despite criticisms, the regime was more open than its predecessors about the impact of the recent tsunami on Myanmar, and has allowed non-government journalists to attend the government's press conferences for the first time. While government statements reiterate autarkic economic policies, foreign investment is still supported and most commercial arrangements with foreign firms continue without unusual hindrance. Prejudging the new leadership is unwise.

WATCHPOINT: It is important to watch the actions of the new leadership closely, to scrutinize the full range of their actions and not to assess them selectively. Their big test will be the resumption of the National Convention now scheduled for 17 February 2005.

 

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