This is a post from CPDD Associate Fellow and UMass Boston International Relations graduate student Aung Tun. The original post appeared in the Myanmar Times.
TODAY when we talk about the political situation in Myanmar, one of the words we hear most frequently is “irreversible”, in the sense that we should not go back to military rule. It’s not only the international community that holds this view; I think I can speak for the majority of people in Myanmar when I say we hope the changes of the past year are permanent.
But a critical question is what exactly needs to be “irreversible”. Thailand provides an example. Our neighbour has faced many military coups in their past – something like 10 since 1932 – but the country has consistently returned to civilian rule, with no need for economic sanctions or boycotts. So what’s the difference between us and Thailand? Thailand has a different political culture, in which, for the most part, the military does its job and the civilian administration focuses on governing.
Whenever there is a shift from military rule to democracy, it needs to be accompanied by military reform. Indonesia since the end of Suharto’s rule in 1997 provides a good example of how the military can exit politics. It’s a key reason why we don’t hear questions being raised about whether changes in Indonesia are “irreversible”. Instead, the country is widely lauded as a beacon of democracy in the region.
Similarly, the democratisation process taking place in Myanmar now also needs to include the development of a new political culture in which the military, civilian government, parliament, opposition, civil society and the public play different but nonetheless important roles. This will create a larger number of strong institutions with independent voices that will ultimately lead to greater political stability.
How can we make this happen? First, political stakeholders, especially President U Thein Sein and his government, the opposition and the military leadership need to have a common understanding of the direction in which the country is heading. At the moment, they seem to have that understanding. However, it will take more than this for us to be able to use the word “irreversible”.
Here, the international community, especially the West, has an important role to play. Myanmar has been isolated for almost five decades but is at a critical juncture in its relations with many nations. It wants to improve relations with a broad range of countries and this gives the international community more leverage than before. In the past it appeared only China had much leverage. Not surprisingly, China used that advantage to meet its own needs.
The West also has its economic reasons for wanting to improve ties with Myanmar. However, it also has an obvious interest in improving the lives of the Myanmar people, which is why it’s already engaged to some extent through non-government and social organisations. This kind of engagement needs to be increased. More broadly, it’s time for the West to use its leverage to make reforms “irreversible” through economic engagement, capacity building, direct development aid, facilitating dialogue between opposing groups and anything else that is likely to lead to a more open society.
In this regard, the recent visit by United Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should be widely welcomed. For me, the most positive aspect of her visit was a pledge to engage in education, health and other social projects through civil society groups. Additionally, she agreed to look at much-needed capacity-building programs, which will be essential if we are to manage the many issues we now face.
The recent improvement in relations doesn’t mean that we will come to rely on the West. We have been struggling on our own for a long time, and will probably continue to do so for some time. However, the current situation provides an opportunity for the international community to do the right thing by the people of Myanmar.
(Aung Tun has formerly worked at The Myanmar Times and non-government organisation Proximity Designs and is currently a research fellow at Myanmar Egress, a Yangon-based t raining centre and policy thinktank.)