Tony Thomas

Myanmar’s perilous course to reform

The goodwill flowed as Myanmar President Thein Sein visited Canberra last week (March 18). But there’s still the peril that a military coup by hardliners could reverse the country’s hard-won gains since 2011.

Thein Sein is a genuine visionary and reformer, despite the decades he spent rising to the rank of General in what was a brutal military regime. He put  out his reformist credentials in Canberra.

“I know that for many years, the Australian Government and the Australian people were concerned over the situation of human rights in Myanmar. I’m grateful for that concern," he said. “I’m here in part to explain the changes that have been taking place and ask for your country’s kind support and assistance in making our transitions to peace, democracy and prosperity a success.” (author’s emphasis)

Gratitude for trenchant criticism is extraordinary stuff from a regime which thumbed its nose at the world during 60 years of intolerant and incompetent rule.

The President also appeared to make a subtle invitation to dissenters to return in safety from Australia to Myanmar: “I hope that many who are from Myanmar  who wish to return may now consider returning to help build our nation at this critical juncture.”

He also requested Australian support in removing the taints Myanmar has suffered in the United Nations, where it has been subject to numerous hostile (and previously justified) resolutions. A typical one came in December, 2011, calling on Myanmar to cease human-rights abuses, including impunity of the military over rapes and sexual violence. Thein Sein’s request went through without official response.

Next cab off the rank is (or might be) ex-felon, now cabinet adviser Aung San Suu Kyi, who joined with Foreign Minister Bob Carr in Yangon last June to say she would visit Australia this year. When? Foreign Affairs referred me to the Prime Minister’s Department, who referred me to the Myanmar Embassy, but no-one knows when.

The Australian government has reacted warmly to Thein Sein’s visit, even to the extent of increasing military cooperation with Myanmar. Prime Minister Gillard announced that the goal was to recognize and encourage Myanmar’s "genuine change":  “The Government has therefore decided that it will post a resident defence attaché to Myanmar to allow for greater engagement and dialogue with the Defence Force.”

Our defence attaché to Myanmar is based in Thailand and was permitted (by Australia) only a few visits a year to Myanmar. The new goal is to help the Myanmar army’s professionalism and backing of reform. Australia will also start working with the army there on peacekeeping and humanitarian relief, while retaining our arms embargo. Gillard also supported mysteriously-named “Track 2” activities. These refer to unofficial and informal contacts and meetings, involving academics, think tanks, journalists and officials not in their official capacities.

A case in point is the Australia Myanmar Institute (AMI), an  unusually cooperative venture led by academics from Melbourne and Deakin Universities. The AMI was launched a Melbourne Town Hall conference on the same day as Thein Sein’s Canberra forum. Among the excellent line-up of speakers were ex-military  and on-the-ground types  capable of expert commentary on the new defence arrangements.

Dr John Blaxland is a graduate not only of Duntroon but of the Royal Thai Army Staff College. A 30-year army veteran, he was defence attache to Thailand and Myanmar from 2008-10. His arresting opening line was that, in 1947, the Australian Strategic Assessment held that Rangoon, not Bangkok, would become the hub of mainland South-East Asia.

“The military likes to talk to military, not to civilians," he said. "When I was defence attaché there, I’d go to talk to them. I’d be in uniform, so were they. They imagined I was like-minded. Our ambassador, Michelle Chan, would come along to hear what we were saying, as well as making her own contribution of course. To push the bounds about reform and opening up the country, you can’t do that unless you are in there talking to them.”

Blaxland has some empathy with Myanmar military thinking. The country’s history is of invasions by Mongols, Chinese, Thais, British conquest (for 100 years) and Japan. Thai-Burmese relationships remain strained, and the military also fears balkanisation of Myanmar by ethnic breakaways. The latest scares involved the George Bush "axis of evil" speech of 2002, with fears of Burma being next in the US cross-hairs. (In fact the US did name Burma as one of the "Outposts of Tyranny" in 2005).

“Military history can’t be brushed aside, and allowing for the military’s very real fears about stability, I feel concern that the present reforms are not irreversible,” continued Blaxland, who also  believes the Myanmar military’s shift of the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw in 2004 was partly a response to that perceived US threat, as well as   insulating the government from the massed demonstrations possible in Yangon.

His view is that the motives for the military reforms were to get some breathing space from Chinese hegemony, lift Western sanctions and enjoy the unlimited wealth potential of modernization, as distinct from limited corrupt wealth in a closed society. The push gained impetus after the military’s humiliating non-performance on the Cyclone Nargis catastrophe of 2008. Further factors were Myanmar’s (successful) ambition to be ASEAN chair next year, and Myanmar’s obvious stagnation relative to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos/Cambodia.

“From Australia’s viewpoint, rapprochement with Myanmar meshes with our liberal impulses for human rights and democratization. We also see gains in trade, investment and particularly in resources development. Strategically, a stronger Myanmar would bolster ASEAN and regional stability, and hopefully permit a stronger Australian voice in the region," Blaxland said.

“Our government is recognizing the need to talk to the army, which is an institution capable of winding back all the reforms, indeed of calling it all off. We can’t have any influence if we don’t talk to the army, to help it keep operating under a democratic civilian government. We are not an ex-colonial power, we are in the region and we can have a constructive role.”

Blaxland was asked about tensions in the army between hardliners and progressives. He says the hardliners had gained a lot of wealth and weren’t prepared to lose it. At each step in their promotion, their opportunities for wealth had increased. Currently, the young officers are the idealists. They also have the inspiration of Thein Sein, who "gets" the need for reform, even though he was the heir of hardline Senior General Than Shwe.

Dr Morten Pedersen is senior lecturer in International and Political Studies at UNSW/Canberra and the Defence Force Academy, and a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Burma (2001-08). He told the conference that the scale of change is shown by Aung San Suu Kyi now chairing a government commission to investigate police violence. Moreover, a joint committee of government officials and ex-political prisoners are investigating the status of possible political prisoners still in gaol.

“Are the reforms irreversible? No, of course not," Pedersen said. "Transitions are by definition highly uncertain. This, however, should not be a source of criticism, but rather a reminder to everyone to ‘buckle up’ and get down to the difficult business of consolidating the gains.”

Despite its conciliatory approach to date, the NLD seems intent on securing another landslide victory in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi, who used to be unconcerned with power, now openly covets the presidency. These are clearly emotionally charged issues for the National League for Democracy, repressed for most of the past 20 years. “But it is hard to see how such aspirations can be reconciled with the need in a plural society for power-sharing, non-partisan politics, and not least the imperative of   continued military support for the reform process,” Pedersen says.

To keep peace during the 2015 election campaigns, some kind of agreement will need to be reached protecting the core interests of both old and new elites. Leaving key constitutional clauses in place may be the only way to ease the fears of the military and pre-empt a backlash coup.

“Will the NLD accept this conundrum and share power to ensure incremental reform? If it doesn’t, turbulent waters should be expected," he continued.

“Moderates on all sides are facing potential rebellion from hardline elements. The 2015 elections are likely to encourage a return to confrontational politics. Patience will wear thin among many who have not yet really benefited from the reform process. The potential for serious conflict in the medium term (which could put the entire reform process at risk), should not be underestimated.”

Thein Sein and speaker of the lower house, Shwe Mann, are driving the reforms from the top, he says. This is not about protecting military power and privileges, but about genuine regime change. The new government is well on its way not to consolidate military rule, but to unravel it.

“Dictatorships do not become democracies overnight; that type of change takes decades, if not generations. At this early stage, the important markers are the direction of change and the commitment to change – and neither of those is, in my assessment, in doubt,” Pedersen said.

He says that each success for the new government is making it harder for potential spoilers. The key has been the willingness by moderates on all sides to put differences aside and work together.

Aung San Suu Kyi has increasingly come under fire, even from her own  supporters, for her perceived failure to challenge the government, especially on human rights issues.

The military is taking a cooperative approach, at least away from the battlefield, and has generally refrained from intervening in affairs outside of the area of national security.

Thein Sein’s government is negotiating seriously with the remaining hostile ethnic armies. Peace is essential if democracy is to take root. The government’s traction towards peace is its main protection against military interference in government affairs “Final success will depend on power and resource-sharing deals between the centre and the hostile provinces, which will require difficult compromises which I am not confident either side is quite prepared or able politically to make,” Pedersen said.

The government, whether military-based or in future under Aung San Suu Kyi, will also need to deliver gains in living standards. But economic benefits can take even longer to arrive than political makeovers. The central administration is weak and high-level initiatives fail to pass down the chain. In the freer environment, social unrest is already growing. Any escalation could invite military intervention and threaten the entire reformation.

The goal is to keep the military on-side with reform and eventually bring it under civilian control. Government policy failures could very easily create the conditions for another coup. Or, short of that, failures could bog down the country in ineffective change, as has occurred in many new democracies. Helping to ensure Myanmar’s reforms stay on track, is a key task for our government and sympathetic groups like the Australia Myanmar Institute, Pedersen said.

Chris Lamb, ambassador to Myanmar from 1986-89, was asked if the country’s constitution could be changed to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for Presidency. He replied that a bill had already been proposed to review some aspects of the constitution, including the clause preventing Aung San Suu Kyi from standing. The bill came not from her own party but from one of the government parties.

“But to open up the entire constitution now to review would be very dangerous,” Lamb said.

Tony Thomas has given more than 50 public talks on modern Burma. He wrote of his heart-in-the-mouth experience of Burmese civil aviation in December

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