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Will Myanmar's messy reform process work? History says yes

Following is my piece on Myanmar's democratic transition, just published (2/10/2015) by the Nikkei Asian Review. I invite you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

©Nikkei Asian Review

Is Myanmar on an unstoppable path to political reform, peace and democracy that will culminate later this year in a free election likely to bring the opposition to power?

   Or does Myanmar remain in the grip of an entrenched and obdurate military regime only willing to cede just enough superficial change to stave off Western sanctions and present a less repressive face to the outside world?

   That question lies at the heart of a debate that has divided diplomats, veteran Southeast Asia watchers and ordinary people in Myanmar as the country enters a crucial year in which planned elections may coincide with a possible peace agreement between the government and myriad ethnic armed groups.

   At the same time, intimidation of journalists -- after a period of unprecedented press freedom -- is slowly intensifying, and the Muslim Rohingya minority is suffering ongoing oppression.

   The setbacks are enough to prompt skeptics to assert that Myanmar is backsliding on promises of reform. Supporting this view, the military plans to maintain a reserved role by earmarking 25% of the seats in parliament for itself, and will control appointments to all the ministries in charge of the security forces.

    Aung San Suu Kyi, the popular leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, is barred from the presidency due to a constitutional clause that excludes candidates whose close relatives hold foreign citizenship. Her two sons are British nationals.

   Meanwhile, critics rightly note, the military and elite power structure that has controlled the country's economy for the last six decades remains fundamentally intact.

     All that is true. But after recently visiting Yangon after many years out of the country, I have come to believe that the reform process is real, if not irreversible. Myanmar must be measured first by how far it has come, and second by the general direction in which it is heading.

     This conclusion is based on my earlier experiences, including seeing Myanmar in its darkest times, following the popular unrest and the brutal crushing of "people power" democracy protests in 1988. I have also seen similarly messy and uncertain transitions from military-backed authoritarian rule in the Philippines in the late 1980s and in Indonesia following the resignation of President Suharto in 1998.

     The Philippines and Indonesia stand as the two examples of free democracies in Southeast Asia, both with lively opposition parties, competitive elections, aggressive and unshackled media, a vibrant civil society and militaries that have ceded the need for civilian control.

     But in neither case was it easy or quick.

     The fall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in 1986 in the Philippines ushered in a long period of instability marked by coup attempts, assassinations, economic calamity and political intrigue as the entrenched forces -- Marcos loyalists, disgruntled soldiers, provincial warlords, conservative landowners -- conspired to upend the fledgling democratic order to retain their power and privilege.

    Several times in the late 1980s, I thought the democratic government of President Corazon Aquino was teetering to the point of collapse. Each time, the democratic order prevailed.

   The same is true of Indonesia, which similarly entered a period of chaos following the collapse of Suharto's New Order regime. Almost instantly, there were centrifugal forces threatening to pull the country apart, including violent flare-ups in Ambon, Aceh and Irian Jaya, as the western half of the island of New Guinea was then known.

    East Timor did break away and become an independent state -- but only after Indonesian military-backed militias rampaged across the island burning, looting and massacring hundreds of civilians. Order was only restored by an Australian-led international peacekeeping force that found the island in ruins.

   It may seem hard to recall now, after the peaceful election last year of populist President Joko Widodo, but a decade and a half ago there was a genuine fear in Indonesia of Balkanization -- a violent split comparable to the breakup of former Yugoslavia -- or a resurgence of Muslim extremism.

Rough road ahead

The point for Myanmar today is that there is no glide path to democracy. It is messy, it is often accompanied by violence, and there will be setbacks. As one Yangon-based diplomat put it: "This is what change looks like."

   It is helpful to look at how far Myanmar has come to assess where the reform process stands today. Compared to my first few visits, in 1989 and 1990, it is a vastly different place. Then, foreign journalists were routinely tracked by ubiquitous security agents. Meetings with the few local people who dared speak with a foreign reporter were fleeting and furtive, in the backrooms of restaurants or tea shops.

    I recall taking notes only sparingly, keeping them hidden on scraps of paper concealed in the linings of my suitcase. Every night I slept uneasily, half-expecting a knock at the door and immediate expulsion; as a Washington Post correspondent, I ended up blacklisted for two decades.

   The capital, Yangon, was also an economic disaster zone, the result of decades of misguided socialism, international isolation and sanctions. The city was shabby and dusty, without a single new building in sight. Electricity supplies were sporadic. The few cars around were mostly 1960s vintage models kept together by patchwork repairs.

   Myanmar, then known as Burma, was one of the most closed, repressive and frightening places in the region.

Times change

The country today is a completely changed place. The press is relatively open and lively, despite recent crackdowns. There is political debate underway. The aura of fear and intimidation has been lifted. And Yangon has the thriving, bustling feel of a city on the way up, with new hotels, restaurants, bars and skyscrapers sprouting up.

   For some, these changes are superficial. "It is liberalization without democratization," one skeptic told me. But even he conceded later, "The liberalization has gone further than expected."

   Whether one believes the change is real and unstoppable, or a cosmetic attempt by the military to maintain power, depends on what one believes about why the regime launched the reform process in the first place.

   That is a question still being hotly debated. Was it the pressure of U.S. and European sanctions that eventually forced the government's hand? Was it geopolitics, and the fear of a growing dependence on China? Was it the enlightenment of the newly elected President Thein Sein?

    If you believe the military rulers only reluctantly embraced change as a means to get sanctions lifted, then you are more likely to think they are now stalling on further reform -- and more inclined to think the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has given up its leverage by rushing in too quickly to reward the generals with an easing of trade restrictions and two presidential visits.

    If you believe Thein Sein was singularly responsible for pushing the change, you are more likely to believe he has entrenched enemies in the power structure who are now thwarting his efforts.

    The reality seems far more complex -- and may be a combination of all of the above. Most observers agree that the military rulers moved to open up the system not so much because of outside pressure, but under their own strict and managed timetable, the so-called Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy.

    "The differences arise because we have different narratives about how this all came about," said Adam Cooper, the Myanmar country representative for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Yangon. "What people get wrong is that they think it was sanctions, or the geopolitics, the need to rebalance from China."

    "We overstate our own influence," he added. "The sanctions were never that relevant."

     What does seem relevant is that the military rulers saw how far back their country had fallen economically compared to its neighbors. "They are very nationalistic," said one diplomat. "As they looked around Southeast Asia, [they saw] they're a basket case. They're a pariah. And they have sanctions on them."

    The feeling that the reforms have stalled may be more a factor of how fast change came in the beginning months -- the release of political prisoners, the opening of travel restrictions, freeing the press, allowing political parties to organize and operate, liberalizing the currency exchange rate, and opening peace talks with rebel groups around the once-taboo idea of federalism.

   Those changes represented the easy first steps, or what one analyst called "the low-hanging fruit." The next steps -- like major constitutional reform, instituting federalism, breaking the economic grip of the elite -- are more difficult challenges that may take years, or decades, of tough negotiations to fully resolve.

    Even the clear reluctance -- in parliamentary, government and military circles -- to reform the constitutional clause that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency is no proof that reforms have stalled. She seems likely now to become leader of parliament, in the position of speaker, and her political party remains best placed to form the next government. The constitution can be changed later to allow her a turn at the presidency.

   What seems clear is that the change has gone too far to be easily reversed. And it is a homegrown process, not forced on Myanmar from the outside, so despite the resistance, there are still those dedicated to making it work.

    If the region holds any lessons, Myanmar's reform process will be messy, imperfect and occasionally violent. It also will not be quick. But if history is any guide, eventually it will work.

@Keith B. Richburg, Nikkei Asian Review

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