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What's really behind Myanmar's reforms

Updated On: Dec 12, 2011

In this week's featured commentary, SIIA Chairman Simon Tay and researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard explore Myanmar's efforts toward reform and change. Have recent reforms been a step toward democracy or simply a pawn in a complicated game of political power?

This commentary appeared in Today newspaper on 12 December, 2011.

When United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar recently, the image of her meeting with the iconic and long-detained Aung San Suu Kyi was carried across the world. After 20-plus years, the country's erstwhile pariah regime has embarked on a path of reforms and the pace of change seems to be accelerating dramatically.

Will this continue? Why have these changes been unfolding? How will the world judge Myanmar's ambitions going forward, beyond Mrs Clinton's visit?

There are some grounds for optimism. Although the elections last year retained the majority of seats for former military leaders and their supporters, the Parliament now includes opposition figures and the government has released political prisoners.

Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are now allowed to contest elections, and with by-elections coming up, there is every possibility that her voice will be heard in Parliament.

Myanmar's leadership clearly realises it is in their interest to open up. Concerted efforts have been made to engage increasingly with the United Nations (UN) and Western powers, especially the US. The Clinton visit was a highlight but not altogether surprising, given past efforts by Senator Jim Webb and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to lay the groundwork.

Yet while current signs are positive, it remains to be seen how ambitious reform will be. Reading the intentions of Myanmar's leaders is never easy and much depends on what we expect. Two schools can be discerned.

Some are chiefly concerned with the growth of democracy and greater protection of human rights in the country. These are real concerns, not only in politics but for the wider population and minorities in Myanmar.

Others however look at the changes primarily in terms of "the great game" - how the country can open up links to the US and the rest of the world, to lessen reliance on China.

At present, these two lenses - about democracy and about the great power game - overlap. But this could diverge quickly, and judgments about whether Myanmar is doing enough would then also begin to differ.

A number of factors could trigger this division. One is how China responds.

Despite Myanmar's recent decision to cancel a dam project led by Chinese companies, Beijing remains a key ally. As Mrs Clinton visited, China welcomed good relations between Myanmar and the US but nonetheless took measures to solidify and exhibit continued close ties with the country. A defence cooperation agreement was signed between them, the day before Mrs Clinton arrived.

It is not in China's interest for isolation to continue, or for Myanmar to become a kind of North Korea. But Myanmar's reforms must bear in mind what Beijing can accept or else risks losing its economic interest and support.

A second factor that could thwart democratic reform is potential internal division amongst Myanmar's leadership. Signs are that power is more decentralised now and that is welcomed, compared to the past autocracy. Differences can however surface about the pace of change. Some already suggest that government officials, retained from the past regime, are more cautious about recent political changes.


A third factor is the degree to which the country's leaders feel they have achieved their main objectives through reforms.

Already, Myanmar has been accepted to serve as ASEAN Chair for 2014. Given that the country previously had to surrender this post, following the crackdown on the saffron revolution, this is seen as something of a prize that confers greater political legitimacy. Another prize is Mrs Clinton's visit, with the prospect of opening up ties with the US.

The international community still has a few ways to enforce checks and balances. ASEAN, having approved Myanmar's chairmanship of the regional body, could make this position conditional on the country's democratic and human rights progress, if things really go awry.

Despite a visit from the State Secretary last week, the US has still not said when it will withdraw sanctions on the country. Likewise, the UN and economic stakeholders such as the International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank and other foreign investors have the ability to pull out support. Amid changes, Myanmar will continue to be under close watch, and states will likely carry on soliciting the approval of Ms Suu Kyi before engaging in closer relations.

It remains to be seen what developments follow. Democracy will no doubt be in the picture.

But if the objectives are primarily about the great power game, reforms will likely fall short for those hoping for genuine domestic power sharing. Look otherwise for steps by the US and its allies like Japan to increase assistance to the country, with the aim to lessen dependence on Beijing. A key indicator will be if the US starts to shift sanctions to allow investment by its companies to flow in.

Those who urge democracy and reform in Myanmar may share cause with those who play the Great Game at present. But given their different lenses and priorities, future developments may start to divide opinion.


Simon Tay and Rachel Chhoa-Howard
About the author: 

Rachel Chhoa-Howard is a researcher at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Simon Tay is chairman of SIIA.