Myanmar's Opposition enters the system

Myanmar's Opposition enters the system

Hillary Clinton will visit Yangon next month, as the West applauds flickers of progress

After a unanimous vote by her party's leaders, Suu Kyi said in a statement that her party would re-register and contest elections, a major milestone both for Myanmar's reconciliation efforts and for her own personal struggle after years spent under house arrest.

That decision came hours after another vote of confidence, if a qualified one, for the country's political liberalisation: an announcement by the United States that Hillary Rodham Clinton would visit next month, the first trip to Myanmar by a US secretary of state in 50 years.

In making that announcement, President Barack Obama referred to "flickers of progress" in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Other, more sanguine analysts have characterised the changes in the country — the government 's courting of the opposition, the release of some political prisoners, the rewriting hundreds of laws, the easing of some restrictions on the media among them — as more of a blazing fire.

Whatever the metaphor, longtime observers say that while the country is now less authoritarian than it was under the military junta that ceded power to a civilian government in March, Myanmar remains beset by grinding poverty and economic dysfunction. And in many areas, it is not at peace. Ethnic groups and their large and well-equipped armies regularly clash with government troops along the borders with China and Thailand.

The Myanmar government led by President Thein Sein has a "critical one-year window," to show that this liberalisation can work, said Thant Myint-U, a historian, former UN official and one of the leading experts on the country.

"It's increasingly easy to be very optimistic at this point, to imagine the further release of political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi entering (Parliament and free and fair elections," he said. "It's far harder to be optimistic about the economy. There's no proper judicial system, there's no proper banking system — no system to help finance economic growth, where businesses can go get a loan.''

Obama, who spoke in Bali, Indonesia, where he was attending a summit meeting of Pacific Rim countries, said November 18 that "of course there's far more to be done" in Myanmar.

"For decades Americans have been deeply concerned about the denial of basic human rights for the Burmese people,'' Obama said. “The persecution of democratic reformers, the brutality shown toward ethnic minorities and the concentration of power in the hands of a few military leaders has challenged our conscience and isolated Burma from the US and much of the world." But he added that "after years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks."

Before announcing Clinton's visit, the president spoke with Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been the main interlocutor between the country's democracy movement and the outside world.

The two spoke November 17 night, while Air Force One was flying from Australia to Indonesia for the Bali meeting. "They reviewed the progress that has been made in Burma, including her release, her dialogue with the government, the release of some political prisoners and legislation that could open the political system further," a senior US official said.

Potential rebalancing
The prospect of closer ties between Myanmar and the West suggests a potential rebalancing of alliances in Asia. In the early years after independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar, strategically located between China and India, sought close ties with the United States and the West to balance out relations with China, says Thant Myint-U, the historian. “China until the 1990s was seen as the country's main strategic threat,” Thant Myint-U said.

In September, Myanmar angered the Chinese government by effectively canceling a Chinese-led project to build a hydroelectric dam in northern Myanmar. The move created a rare rift between the countries, which have been tightly allied over the past two decades.

The US and the European Union still maintain a number of economic and political sanctions against Myanmar, measures that Aung San Suu Kyi had said she supported, at least until now. Analysts are closely watching to see whether her stance on sanctions will change now that she has rejoined the political system. Her views are likely to have a strong influence on Washington's policies.

On Friday, at the headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in Yangon, the main city in Myanmar, the announcement that it would rejoin the political system was greeted by cheers.

"Mother Suu, we support you!" the crowd chanted, using the party leader's nickname, according to a witness. A party spokesman said it was likely that Suu Kyi would contest one of 48 upcoming by-elections for parliament. No date for the voting has been set.

To the outside world, Suu Kyi is probably best known for her staunch opposition to military rule. But as the daughter of Aung San, the founder of the modern Burmese army, her view of the military is nuanced.

"She never for a minute forgot that she was the daughter of Burma's national hero, Aung San," Michael Aris, Suu Kyi's late husband, wrote in an introduction to a book that compiled her writings.

Suu Kyi, 66, spent much of her life overseas until March 1988 when, while she was living in England, she received word that her mother had suffered a stroke. Her return coincided with an uprising against the government, and she became the symbol of the country's democratic opposition. She led the movement to an election victory in 1990 that was ignored by the military junta. The military ruled the country for the next two decades, and Suu Kyi .spent most of that time under house arrest.

After her release last November, Suu Kyi moved cautiously. "She was reserved in her criticism of the military," said Thant Myint-U. "There's been a very sophisticated choreography over the past few months."

The government led by Thein Sein, the president who came to power in March, invited Suu Kyi to a series of meetings — a remarkable contrast with the previous government, which rarely mentioned her name in public.

Political harmony in the country, to some degree, may now depend on whether the detente between the former dissident and the military-backed government lasts. In the coming months, the government faces the possibility of backlash from business tycoons who made their fortunes in the old political system and elements in the military uncomfortable with the overtures to the opposition.Perhaps above all, the country faces huge challenges in fixing its economy, especially in the realm of banking and finance.

There are no mortgages in Myanmar, and banks are barred from lending for terms of more than one year. Private banks are forbidden to lend to farmers, who make up 70 per cent of the country's population of 55 million.

The only readily available credit is from informal money lenders, who charge interest rates of about 180 per cent per year, according to Sean Turnell, one of the world's leading experts on Myanmar's economy.

Turnell says the country faces a transition to a market economy similar to what Eastern European countries experienced after the fall of the Soviet Union.