Myanmar: The End Of The Beginning

2002

Professor David I. Steinberg

It is the culmination of a long dialogue that started in October 2000, but it is the beginning of an even more arduous process. The ending of the political stasis that has existed for twelve years is certainly welcome. The announcement of 6 May that Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest, the invitation of a number of media people to travel to Yangon for that event, and the worldwide coverage of this change has been correctly greeted with anticipation and hope within the country and by the international community as well. Both sides have been exceptionally moderate in their public statements about the changes.

But this is a start, not an end. Now begin the difficult negotiations over the three key issues facing the state: the political future of the country, its economic decline, and the distribution of power to the periphery. It seems that the process has started, but no road map or sequence has been internally agreed, and thus the process will be hazardous. If it stalls or fails, then the international community may impose even more stringent conditions on the state, and will blame the military, wherever the responsibility lies.

The limelight is on the political consequences of dialogue. What will be the nature of a renegotiated constitution? What is the timetable for reaching consensus on it, for holding a referendum, and for new elections for a reconstituted Pyithu Hluttaw (National Assembly)? What role will the military play in the legislative or executive administration of the state?

To have reached even this stage in the dialogue is important for the economy. Although the multilateral donors and the European Union and the United States are unlikely to provide much more than the current humanitarian assistance, Japanese aid is likely to increase. If the process continues, more assistance is likely to flow. Such assistance and the hopes that both the indigenous and foreign private sector seemed to offer when socialism was abandoned in 1988 have not been fulfilled. In part this is because of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, but more fundamentally it is a result of a still highly dirigiste, corrupt, and unpredictable regime. Breaking the pattern of rent--seeking and suspicion of the private sector into which the state has fallen will be difficult.

On the most basic of the three issues previously mentioned, the division of power between the center and the periphery, the dialogue has not even begun. The minorities have been excluded from the discussions both sides indicating it would be premature to include them. This question, the most contentious of issues, of how much and what kind of autonomy the minority groups would consider fair (and even how to define them and their areas of residence) has been Myanmar’s most persistent problem. Even under the civilian government, the minorities were restive much more so under the military where central forces are often regarded as virtual armies of occupation. The cease-fires now prevailing with many groups mask the pervasiveness of the problem, and thus the difficulties that lie ahead.

WATCHPOINT: The world welcomes the change that has allowed hope to begin anew. Yet the path ahead is long, winding, rocky, and dangerous.

 

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