Will Political Reform Help Burma Rise From the Ashes?


Burma is changing. For almost five decades, the nation was ruled under a military junta. Yet since the 2010 elections, the current civilian government, which was backed by the military, has initiated a process of political reform.

Two months before the 2010 elections, I visited the country. What struck me most was the friendliness of the people, who regularly expressed gratitude for visiting and acknowledging some of the issues faced by their country. It was clear the majority of people sought for change. Burma also retains customs that are less evident elsewhere in the region: typically, women apply a yellow tree bark paste, called thanaka, to their cheeks to enhance beauty, while men stroll in long sarong-like longyi. Considered a pariah state, the country has not been overwhelmed by tourism like neighboring Thailand, and has preserved its culture. Whether these traditions will continue with the current reforms is unknown; yet for most Burmese, such changes are welcomed. The shift from military rule has, however, also enabled some individuals to voice their distrust of other ethnic groups, leading to sectarian unrest. Thus, considering recent trends, the path that Burma follows is likely to be challenging and unpredictable.

Bucking the Trend

Located between India, China and Thailand, the hundred or so ethnicities of Burma's 56 million inhabitants form an Asian cultural junction. Once one of the continent's leaders in health care and education, Burma – formally known as Myanmar – is now one of the world's least developed nations, characterized by a poor human rights record, government economic mismanagement, forced labor, human trafficking, political prisoners, international denunciation and trade sanctions. The country made world headlines in 2007 when the government severely suppressed activists protesting against fuel subsidy changes; this was followed by the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which claimed over 80,000 lives (international offers of aid were initially resisted). Since the late-1980s, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been pushing for political reform and secured 80% of the seats in the 1990 election. Yet this outcome was ignored by the government, who placed Suu Kyi under house arrest from 1989 to 2010. Following the 2010 reforms, however, the NLD was allowed to register for the 2012 by-elections.

The relaxation of stringent media laws, new licenses to print private newspapers, and a recent visit by President Obama, coupled with protests against a Burmese-Chinese mine and current sectarian violence against Muslims are leading to dramatic shifts in Burma's socio-political climate.

Young monks queue for their mid-day meal. Mounting tension between Buddhists, which comprise almost 90% of the population, and Muslim minority communities are resulting in violent conflicts 

Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, a week after the current  government, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, led by former general President Thein Sein, controversially won Burma’s first election since 1990. The elections, which were condemned by the West, were – according to the junta – a transition from military rule to civilian democracy. In August 2011, Suu Kyi was permitted to leave the former capital Yangon to meet Thein Sein. Two months later, over 200 political prisoners were released, new labor laws allowing unions were passed, and Suu Kyi announced she would stand for election after the NLD registered for the 2012 by-elections. At the start of 2012, more political prisoners were released, including students who were imprisoned during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, monks that demonstrated in the 2007 protests, and other activists from ethnic minority groups. Three months later, the NLD won the parliamentary by-elections (by 41 seats out of 44), which led to the easing of trade sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union. By January 2013, the 1988 ban on public gatherings was lifted, and the Asian Development Bank resumed issuing loans to improve socio-economic development. 

Making Headlines 

As well as socio-political changes, new licenses have also been granted for the production and distribution of private daily newspapers, which have been banned since the mid-1960s. Less than a decade ago, Burmese journalists were heavily restricted: reporter surveillance was common, and those that broke the rules could be imprisoned or tortured. This began to change last August when Thein Sein relaxed laws that controlled the media, enabling journalists to publish articles without direct censorship. Hence, on 1 April this year, sixteen newspapers were given licenses and four were printed, which are the first of their kind for many young Burmese, and include stories ranging from day-to-day news to regional sectarian violence. (The NLD, incidentally, plans to print its own publication at the end of this month.) Some restrictions of the 1962 Printing and Registration Act remain, including the government's ability to suspend publishing licenses; moreover, all journalists must officially register – those that do not can face up to seven years imprisonment. Even so, the increased freedom of the media is demonstrating yet further changes in the country.

The tropical sun glows orange as it sets over Taungthaman Lake, silhouetting U Bein Bridge (the world's longest teak bridge) in Amarapura, central Burma – a key site for tourists

Since the political reforms, Burma has also experienced rising social instability. In south-western Rakhine state, violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims (who are viewed as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by some Burmese) has resulted in around 200 deaths and 115,000 displaced individuals. Last month, similar tensions, provoked by a fight in a Muslim-owned jeweler shop (leading to the death of a Buddhist monk) escalated in central Meiktila, close to Mandalay, claiming 40 lives and displacing over 12,000 people. Under military rule, the communal mistrust that often characterizes the Burmese psyche was concealed; yet since the political reforms, these attitudes are becoming voiced and, at times, aggressively exposed. This violence is a major concern for the country, and has led to some criticism of Suu Kyi who has brought little attention to such issues. It is unclear how these incidents will unfold, especially as Suu Kyi was photographed last month at the annual Armed Forces Day celebrations, sat between generals who are believed to be behind the anti-Islamic unrest. The violent and xenophobic attitudes amongst some Buddhists, and a growing boycott on Muslim businesses, could have serious implications for national socio-political stability. 

Uneasy Roads Ahead

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. However, this trend has somewhat shifted over the past two years. Some analysts believe this is to enable the country to bid for the 2014 chair of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) trade agreement, and thus gain the benefits from regional free trade. Additionally, some experts predict the military will manipulate the 2015 elections to maintain power. The growing prominence of the NLD is also expected to open the country and invigorate tourism, which could enable Burma to compete with Thailand and Malaysia: good news for the tourism sector, yet perhaps not so good news for the cultural heritage the nation has maintained. As well as anti-Islamic unrest and penalties for unregistered journalists, both Burma and the NLD face many other challenges: the country's constitution retains a quarter of its parliamentary seats for the military, and Suu Kyi is currently banned from running for president due to her late husband’s British nationality.

Furthermore, over half of Burma's population is under 27 years of age (many of whom feel the aging NLD is out of touch with the country's youth), only 26% of Burmese homes had access to electricity in 2011, and there are some concerns that the NLD is beginning to refuse media access. Undeniably, the forthcoming years will be memorable for the Burmese and their suppressed yet somewhat optimistic nation in motion – yet to forecast how such years will unveil would be more than unwise.