Is Burma Really Changing?

burma-democratic-reform-for-realThe notoriously powerful military junta of Burma is loosening its grip. In an uncharacteristic move, former army general Thein Sein, who came to power in March, thwarted the Chinese-funded $3.6-billion Myitsone dam project in the state of Kachin, relenting to continuous pressure from the Burmese citizens in that region. The Burmese government has recently released more than 6,000 political prisoners. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is currently paying a historic visit to a country that has been closed to outside world for more than 50 years.

These events indicate that Burma may be inching toward democratic reform.

But much more needs to be accomplished, tested, and proved. Burma’s political structure is still ruled unilaterally by the military, which also controls its economy. Its opposition parties are weak. Although the opposition parties are strengthening their voices with chief opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest, it is still too early to predict the impact of the opposition on Burma’s current political structure.

The Junta

For the last 50 years, the military junta has ruled Burma with an iron fist. Despite economic sanctions, the outside world has had little impact on the sovereignty of the regime. Burma is rich in natural resources like hydropower, natural gas, petroleum, and precious stones.

The United States renewed its financial and travel sanctions against Burma in 2007. Earlier this year, the European Union (EU) also extended its own economic sanctions. But the military junta strategically circumvented these sanctions by exploiting the country’s natural resources. According to a report, in 2010 the Burmese junta netted an estimated 1 billion euro from the sale of precious stones. Showcasing its resources at trade fairs, the junta generated as much as 400-500 million euro the same year.

The human rights violations of the military junta are beyond question. To cite but one example, instead of helping the victims of cyclone Nargis, the military government continued to spend money generated from the proceeds of the sale of natural resources to build up its military power.

Regional Alliances

India’s relationship with Burma is complicated by geographical proximity, Chinese influence, and a tension between mistrust and collaboration. Despite political and philosophical differences, India has shown its support for democratic changes in Burma. According to one report, India openly criticized Burma’s autocratic suppression when a massive anti-government rally broke out in 2007 to protest an increase in fuel prices.

But India has also attempted to engage with Burma politically and has pressured the United States and other Western nations to ease the economic sanctions against Burma. The economic ties between India and Burma, after all, are very close. According to the South Asia Analysis Group, in 2007 and 2008 bilateral trade between the two countries reached nearly $1 billion, while exports from Burma to India reached $810 million. This economic relationship has extended to building infrastructure projects, establishing border trade, and brokering energy deals.

The prospects of Burma assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 look promising. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently commented that this opportunity would be a testament to the country’s path to democratic reform. The ASEAN chairmanship is important to Burma for securing international recognition and validating the country’s new democratic credentials. With rising human capital, savings rates, foreign investment, and GDP growth, the ASEAN nations continue to assert their economic and political strengths in global markets. For Burma, this would be a big opportunity to translate its political changes into economic investments.

Because of the economic sanctions from the West and “disassociation” with the ASEAN countries, China has remained a reliable trading ally for Burma. A sustained political and diplomatic relationship between Burma and China is essential to economic growth in Burma, but it may not be easy to achieve. Although China’s relationship with ASEAN countries has improved over the last decades, its growing military power poses a concern for its Southeast Asian neighbors, including Burma.

The Reforms

Even before her house arrest in 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi had been actively advocating for democratic reform in Burma. Today she is preparing to run for a seat in the Senate. She met Secretary of State Clinton on her trip to the country and endorsed closer ties between the United States and Burma.

Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has registered to run in the upcoming elections. The party has pressed for a variety of political changes, including a constitutional amendment that would allow prisoners to vote. There have been other positive signs in terms of human rights. Zargana, a famous comedian in Burma, was jailed for speaking out against the government’s inaction for the victims of Hurricane Nargis in 2008. Sentenced to 59 years in prison, Zargana is free now. His release, along with the unbanning of public protests, points to the possibility of a new climate of free speech.

The Burmese government has also reversed a labor law so that unions can now strike under certain conditions, a practice that had been banned since 1962. The new legislation will likely improve transparency in Burmese labor practices.

The cancellation of the Myitsone dam project is another indication that the reforms are serious. For one thing, it acknowledges the government response to the plight of the villagers who have been displaced to make way for the project. It reflects years of public discontent against the military regime in the Kachin region. And it also underscores Burma’s firmness against China’s manipulation of its natural resources.

These changes illustrate how far the Burmese government has come in terms of democratic reform after more than 50 years of military rule. Burma’s road to reform has many potential obstacles. The government continues to persecute opposition party members, and the junta’s treatment of insurgents in states like Kachin remains objectionable. Despite these indications of a government reluctant to give up its political control, Burma is clearly on a different path. Where that path leads, however, is still not certain.

Iqbal Ahmed is a public policy graduate student at George Mason University and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He has written for Foreign Policy Journal, Journal of Foreign Relations, Global Politician, and NPR’s “This I Believe.”