Generals fail to market Myanmar

Three years after Myanmar’s ruling generals shed their uniforms and propelled the country on an ambitious journey toward democracy, security forces are back on the streets of the former military dictatorship.

A rampage by radical Buddhists in the sprawling city of Mandalay that left two people dead this week spurred the authorities to declare a nighttime curfew, dispatch hundreds of riot police officers and erect razor wire around the Muslim neighbourhoods that were attacked.

The violence raised fears that the rioting that has hit provincial towns in the past two years might now spill over into Myanmar’s most populous and important cities. It was yet another in a string of disa­ppo­intments that have worn away at the euphoria that greeted the end of five dark decades of military rule. Among the most worrisome setbacks are the attacks in western Myanmar on an ethnic minority called the Rohingya, an apparent rollback of some press freedoms and tepid commitments by foreign investors crucial to building the nation’s impoverished economy.

Both critics and supporters of the government agree that changes over the past three years have made Myanmar profoundly more open and free than the cloistered, brutally repressive country that it was under military rule. But whereas two years ago the government was tightly focused on writing a foreign investment law, releasing political prisoners and abolishing strict censorship, critics say religious politicking is both distracting leaders from reforms and poisoning some of the goodwill that President Thein Sein, a former general, had when he began the liberalization effort in 2011.

Divisive Measures

One of the highest-profile proposals of his administration this year is a series of divisive measures to “protect” Buddhism that have drawn outrage from interfaith groups. The proposed laws — pushed by a radical Buddhist movement blamed by many for instigating violence against Muslims — would restrict religious conversions and require women to obtain permission before marrying outside their religion.

“Liberalization is over,” said Daw Zin Mar Aung, a women’s rights activist who has received death threats for her opposition to the bills. “Why would the president submit such radical laws?” Ms Zin Mar Aung, who is a former political prisoner.

The economic changes pushed by the new government are considered a critical complement to the political freedoms that have been introduced. 

For decades, Myanmar’s economy was largely state-controlled and disconnected from the outside world. But the welcome mat laid out for foreign investors three years ago has failed to produce the rush of foreign companies that many anticipated, and foreign businesses are encountering high levels of corruption, a dysfunctional
 bureaucracy and infrastructure that remains among the most primitive in Asia.

A spokesman for President Thein Sein complained in a separate interview that too few investors “are coming with big money.” U Ye Htut, the spokesman, added, “The president’s concern is that economic dividends have failed to reach the grass-roots level.”

The disappointing levels of foreign investment are a blow to the governing party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was created by the former junta. The party was counting on job creation to help it overcome what many consider the long odds of beating the National League for Democracy, the party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi  in landmark polls due to be called next year.

She offered a measure of legitimacy to the fledgling democracy and its reform process when she joined Parliament and cultivated warmer relations with the military. But the honeymoon between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military that jailed her for over two decades now appears to be soured by the refusal of Parliament — where the military is allotted one-quarter of seats — to change a law that bars her from becoming president. She has begun to battle for curtailing the military’s political power.

Last month in the provincial city of Taunggu, she told a crowd of supporters that the military is “taking rights they do not deserve.” Despite the three years of a nominally civilian government, the military’s privileges and economic clout have remained largely intact. “They own everything: land, companies, export licenses,” said U Win Htein, a former officer who is now an opposition member of Parliament. “You name it, they have it.”

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