Thursday, March 18, 2010

Change afoot in Myanmar?

While the first wave of commentary about the new election laws in Myanmar largely condemn them as a blatant attempt by the generals to rig the upcoming polls, a more subtle critique has emerged over the last few days.

There's no doubt that the exclusion of Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 other political prisoners from participating in the polls means they will be about as far from "free and fair" as you can get.

But it was always obvious that the generals would hold sham elections. What's interesting is that journalists and other commentators are arguing that the elections will still presage a transition of sorts, with power slowly dissipating from the tight grip of senior general Than Shwe and his immediate cabal.

As The Economist noted, scores of state-owned assets including telecoms firms and part of the national airline are being sold off, albeit to cronies:

This is hardly a gesture to economic reform—the sales are cooked-up deals benefiting junta cronies. But nor does it seem just the desperation of a cash-strapped regime. Rather, in the analysis of Yeni, of the Irrawaddy, a magazine published by émigrés in Thailand, it is the “formal transfer of the nation’s wealth into the hands of an entrenched elite”, ahead of an election and the implementation of a new constitution which, in theory, should allow greater competition for assets.

A New York Times piece argues that change is indeed coming to Myanmar, as the generals seek to show that they are trying to stimulate Myanmar's crestfallen economy:

Signs of change abound. The military, which has been in power for close to five decades, has issued permits for private hospitals and schools, neither of which were officially allowed before. It has sold a raft of state-run factories and assets to cronies in the private sector and appears to be lifting some of the punitive restrictions on the ownership of cars and motorcycles. The country is taking steps to revive its troubled but potentially lucrative rice exports.

The NYT quotes Thant Myint-U, a historian and advocate of more engagement with Myanmar, as saying "Burma is at a critical watershed. We’re clearly moving towards something other than a strict army hierarchy with just one general at the top".

There's also a fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal that suggests there is a "Third Force" emerging in Myanmar of moderate activists who favour the sort of cautious reform that will not rankle the military men. Unlike Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, these Third Force politicians are willing to play by the junta's skewed rules:

Unlike Ms. Suu Kyi, who is widely perceived as taking a hard line against compromising with Myanmar's military, they generally believe there is significant room to negotiate with the regime in pursuit of gradual change, according to interviews with activists and others familiar with the country's political landscape.

Among the ideas some are pursuing: Liberalization of the rice trade in Myanmar, once the world's largest rice exporters before hit with years of stagnation due to weak investment and government restrictions. Some of the activists think they can convince Myanmar's next government to allow a bigger role for private traders and investors, which could energize the sector and boost rural incomes.

This fits with what I've been told by Burmese activists who say that some Western diplomats and NGO workers in Yangon have been trying to tap up reform-minded people within or close to the military and the bureaucracy.

Interestingly, the WSJ suggests that the models for these middle-way activists are countries like Indonesia and South Korea, which have transitioned to multi-party democracy after decades of rule by strongmen.

The idea that Indonesia, which moved from military dictatorship to democracy in a decade despite fears of ethnic and religious conflict, could offer a "roadmap" for Myanmar is also proposed by Hamish McDonald, Asia-Pacific editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, in an opinion piece.

We may learn more about how interested Myanmar is in following the Indonesian model when Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, visits later this month.

All this gives an impression that the wheels of change are, ever so slowly and under the junta's total control, starting to turn. But what concerns me is how much of this is just wishful thinking and the need to replace the tired old narrative about the evil junta vs saint Suu Kyi with a fresh approach?




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