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Long way to go for Myanmar's reformers

In Yangon, promises must be followed by solid actions

Released prisoners outside the jail in January Released prisoners outside the jail in January
  • Mark Chit, Mandalay and Thomas Toe, Yangon
  • Myanmar
  • March 30, 2012
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The speed and scope of Myanmar’s recent reforms have surprised and delighted everyone concerned, from the international community to the country's own long suffering people.

Since the new civilian government was sworn in on March 30, 2011, it has released many political prisoners, eased media censorship, met with the opposition NLD party and declared April 1 by-elections.

This last point will surely prove to be an acid test. Maung Wuntha, a veteran journalist from Yangon and contributing editor of ‘People’s Age’ journal, said "the new parliament must be the outcome of a free and fair election."

If the election is seen to fulfill those criteria, it may well pave the way for the US, Europe and other developed nations to lift the sanctions which have hobbled Myanmar for years.

To maintain the momentum, the president of the year-old civilian government underlined its commitment to move forward with further reforms "for the good of the people" in a landmark speech to parliament on March 1.

So a mood of cautious optimism prevails. But there are fears that expectations have been raised too high and some skeptics ask if the regime - which impoverished the country more than four decades - will really deliver on its promises.

U Tin Aung Aung, a former political party member, voiced a commonly held suspicion when he told ucanews.com: “The government has claimed the reforms will be irreversible. But we can't be sure of that exactly, as they are from a military background.”

There are also questions over how the president's rhetoric is to be put into practice.

"The president is genuine in his commitment," said U Ohn Kyaing, chief spokesperson of the NLD and a by-election candidate. "But the reality is a long way from what he said in that speech on March 1.

"He didn’t mention how they are going to amend the 2008 constitution. The majority of the government-backed USDP party in parliament are military men, unable to tackle poverty or hold peace talks."

However, U Ohn Kyaing was quick to reiterate his belief that "the president is willing to move in a positive way.” He also acknowledged that the difficulties are more than a matter of party politics.  “Even with NLD members in parliament, it will take time to amend the constitution,” he said.

Thein Than Oo, a Mandalay-based lawyer, pointed out that the country still has no rule of law - a legal maxim which indicates that government decisions are based on legal precedent -  even though the president used that phrase many times in his speech.

As an example, he cited the hostilities in Kachin State, northern Myanmar. "The government troops and the Kachin rebels are still fighting, even though the president has given the command to stop," he said.

Another problem is in defining where the reforms are and where they should be taking effect.  The president’s political adviser, Nay Zin Lat, has said that the change in Myanmar goes from “top to bottom” instead of "bottom up."

But Thein Than Oo insisted that “change at the top level is only part of it. The grass roots level needs to change as well. Corruption at that lower level still exists. You still need to pay bribes to get anything done.”

Virtually all observers agree that successful reform will need a collective effort on a worldwide basis. “Support from the international community, local NGOs and the public is essential," said one commentator, "as the government can only take it so far.”

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