2012: a new beginning for Myanmar?
A new year always allows for looking back and this could not be more true for Myanmar and 2012. Lots of things have been going on in the country formerly known as Burma. In March the government elected in 2010 in the first elections in 20 years, took office. On 1 April the so-called by-elections took place: in 48 constituencies new representatives were chosen to fill the places of those that had found a place in government and, as a consequence, had to give up their place in parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) competed this time and won 44 of the 45 seats they contested. Sounds like quite a victory, but keep in mind that the (two) houses of national and the 14 sub-national parliaments count over 1000 seats, 25% of these are automatically reserved for the military.
Apart from the most avid opponents of the regime, most have gone from healthy skepticism to a cautious optimism. In July Suu Kyi travelled abroad. For the first time since 1988. There was never a ban for her to leave the country but she wasn’t sure she’d be allowed back in. So she decided to stay put. This trip passed without problems and took her to the ILO in Geneva, to Norway where she was honored 21 years after she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the UK and US.
Over the summer the positive news continued. All the big players are gearing up to start their development activities: IMF, Worldbank, UN organizations. Previously they could not engage with the government, the military regime. Big business is getting ready, too. Myanmar’s natural wealth is too rich to withstand. The only thing holding them back is the uncertainty about the sanctions: they have been suspended, not lifted. This is an additional worry to be added to the country-specific ones: a very basic banking system, a bad infrastructure, regular power cuts and the lack of capable personnel. Myanmar needs foreign money badly and worked hard on its Foreign Investment Law, another variable. It passed in November. Let’s hope that the momentum does not become a mixed blessing and that all benefit…
Less positive was the outbreak of violence in Rakhine state. Around 800,000 Rohingyas live in this state that borders Bangladesh. They are descendants from people that migrated from Bangladesh several generations ago and basically Myanmar and its people don’t want them. They are dark of skin and Muslim, two things that count heavily against them. They are not recognized as one of the 135 ethnic groups and are virtually without rights. They cannot travel outside their village without permission. They can only marry a Rohingya spouse. They cannot but do the lowest and most unwanted of all jobs. Bangladesh doesn’t want them either. (Those brave enough to try for a better life, set sail and try to reach Malaysia. Not many succeed in finding a better life.)
So when a Buddhist Rakhine woman got raped and killed, the bomb exploded. Even though the suspects, 3 Rohingya men, were quickly detained, people took matters into their own hands. They attacked the bus rumored to carry the suspects and killed 10 Muslims. Things progressed to riots and burning of houses and shops. No one speaks out on the Rohingya’s behalf, not even Suu Kyi. Other prominent political prisoners, people who themselves have experienced oppression, even say things against them. The press writes horrible things; on social media genocide was being called for. Is this the other side of the freedom genie being let out of the dictatorship bottle?
The changes in the country also affect the exiled community outside the country. Many organizations in Bangkok or along the border need to reinvent themselves. For years most have been working to promote democracy in the country. These activities often included condemning the regime. (And rightly so.) But in 2012 everything changed. In name at first, but slowly but surely a bit more ‘for real’ every day. Needless to say, there’s still a lot to be done and to be changed. But the whole ‘they are so wrong, so bad’ etc does not fly anymore: the international community badly wants to engage with Myanmar and thus has to take a more diplomatic stance. It needs to find ways to keep the momentum going by balancing the carrot and the stick. In consequence, harsh words are best avoided.
As 2013 is on its way, fighting in Kachin state continues and intensifies. A new cease fire agreement is nowhere in sight since the old one collapsed in 2011 after 17 years and this weighs heavily on the agreements that were concluded with other ethnic armed groups. At the same time, the momentum to really make ‘it’ work in the capital Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon and among the international community is still high.
Let’s hope Myanmar’s time is now!