Latest Opinion and Comment

Igor Blazevic: The Irrawaddy - 5 October 2015
The durability of the Burmese military establishment can be explained in reference to several key bulwarks. In military parlance, these might be referred to as ‘defensive lines,’ employed to ensure the army’s preeminent position.....

The guardians of this system have shown a remarkable capacity for advanced planning, strategy and patience. They have also shown flexibility; an ability to change course if one or another strategies are failing.

Burma’s opposition parties themselves need to develop better long-term strategies and stamp their own vision on an improved system of governance and society. Governance through force and cooption cannot last forever.

The Brooking Institute - 16 September 2015

Lex Rieffel, Senior Fellow at the Institute, concludes his incisive analysis of the State-owned sector thus: "The state-owned enterprise sector will remain a drag on Myanmar’s economic progress.  Bold reforms that may be proposed by the next government will be watered down by the legislature. The military will not cede control to civilians of its most lucrative rent-seeking activities. The woefully neglected education system will not produce enough quality graduates who can become globally competitive enterprise managers. 


"We can hope for a miracle: a genuinely civilian government next year that brings the civil war to an end and implements policies that raise household incomes in the rural sector where most of the population resides.  But don’t hold your breath."

Min Zin: The New York Times - 11 September 2015
Campaigning formally started on Tuesday for Myanmar’s first general election since the end of direct military rule, but don’t be fooled by the display of colorful logos and slogans from various political parties: The army is back in force.
Renaud Egreteau: ISEAS Trends in Southeast Asia No. 17 - September 2015

Drawing on a series of recent interviews, as well as an initial analysis of individual legislative activities performed by Union-level legislators, this paper identifies three types of Burmese parliamentarians with military background: reluctant members of parliament (MPs), dutiful MPs and high-flying MPs.

As they form a vast pool of loyal and relatively well-educated bureaucrats, military retirees are expected to remain a political force in upcoming legislatures as well. Yet, these emerging political elites may prove increasingly heterogeneous and not necessarily aligned with the policy preferences outlined by the next generations of military leaders - or the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thomas Fuller: New York Times - 28 August 2015
It was taboo for many years among democracy activists in Myanmar to speak ill of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a global icon of democracy and a symbol of resistance against oppression when Myanmar was ruled by a brutal military junta. Any criticism of The Lady, as she is known here, was seen as strengthening the hand of the generals.
But as landmark elections approach - a contest described by some as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for democratic forces - Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is being openly criticized by activists, commentators and intellectuals. They accuse her of a my-way-or-the-highway approach to managing her party. They question her decision to ally herself with a now-marginalized former general. And they say she is missing an opportunity to build a grand coalition of democratic forces, including minority ethnic groups whose support may be crucial after the election.
“She has made enemies with the people she needs,” said U Sithu Aung Myint, a widely read columnist with a reputation for nonpartisan commentary. “She lacks strategic thinking, and she is not a clever politician.”
Asked what he thought of the term, U Nyan Win, the party’s spokesman, did not hesitate. “I agree,” he said. But he insisted that her top-down handling of party affairs did not diminish her legacy and leadership in pushing for democratic change. Burmese political culture has long featured hierarchical decision-making, he said, and her party is no exception.
He painted a picture of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who turned 70 in June, as overworked, struggling to delegate power and not always getting accurate information about the day-to-day decisions within the party.
Bertil Lintner: YaleGlobal Online - August 2015

Abstract: The West celebrated the promise of democratic reforms for Myanmar after a new government was installed in 2011. The military signaled its desire to restore relations with the West, ending crippling sanctions while reducing excessive reliance on neighboring China. Observers in the West had pointed to the speaker of the Lower House of Myanmar’s bicameral parliament as a “bridge” linking Myanmar’s rulers with reformers, explains journalist Bertil Lintner. The abrupt ouster of Shwe Mann suggests that the military is not about to let power shift to civilian control. The military has a lock on power: 25 percent of the seats in the country’s parliament and regional assemblies are set aside for the military; changes to the country’s power structure require 75 percent approval. The United States grumbles about what may have been the plan all along from Myanmar's leaders. China is content to go along with what may be a charade, sticking to its policy of refusing to interfere with others' internal power struggles.

Derek Tonkin writes: Two interpretations of the significance of recent events. I tend to support Bertil Lintner's. Shwe Mann has had his wings clipped, and although he clearly still has a measure of support among USDP parliamentary representatives, after the elections it will not be the same USDP team in parliament. He is unlikely to remain Speaker for long, while his presidential hopes look doomed.  

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The roots of religious conflict in Myanmar
Matt Schissler, Matthew J Walton, Phyu Phyu Thi: The Diplomat - 6 August 2015
Myanmar has been the site of serious conflicts between Buddhist and Muslim communities, particularly in Rakhine State where at least 146,000 persons have been displaced since the first riots in June 2012. This violence has prompted international organizations dedicated to early warning of mass violence to issue alarms, but the dynamics of this conflict are understood differently in Myanmar. In May, three Nobel laureates called violence and persecution of Muslims in Myanmar “nothing less than genocide.” A few days later, U Zaw Aye Maung, the Rakhine Affairs Minister for Yangon Region, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying, “if genocide was taking place in Rakhine State, then it was against ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.”

Such a statement is not simple intransigence in the face of external criticism. It illustrates a conception of victim and violator that is diametrically opposed to the one made visible in international discourse. In Myanmar’s domestic context, such a conception is closer to the norm than otherwise. Other state authorities use similar rhetoric. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, told the BBC in October 2013, “Fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well. There’s a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great.” 

Myanmar's tycoons: Vested interest resisting reform or agents of change?
Stuart Larkin: ISEAS Perspective - 22 July 2015
A persuasive and well argued presentation, which concludes: 
"Myanmar’s tycoons are here to stay. They are reactive and adaptive and have many advantages. They understand how their country works and enjoy relationships with the ruling class that in many cases go back several decades; they have the local knowledge and know how to get things done. Their conglomerates have capital as well as some managerial, organizational and technical capabilities. They are big enough to compete and collaborate with big international companies. Western donors tend to see them as being part of the problem but not to see a role for the tycoons that makes them part of the solution.  

"In reality, Myanmar’s tycoons are a mixed bag, with a range of backgrounds, attitudes and operating styles. To dismiss tycoons as “cronies” overlooks their potential contribution to development. Myanmar needs a government which understands this and is capable of selecting the right tycoons to work with. The specific task at hand is the rapid establishment of a pipeline of “shovel ready” projects to take advantage of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance when it becomes operational. For a country that sits at the bottom of Asia’s poverty tables, a “results driven” rather than a “process driven” approach to development is to be welcomed." 

Derek Tonkin writes: Apart from the US, Western Governments have now rescinded all economic and financial sanctions apart from the export licensing of arms and military equipment. The US Administration, under Republican congressional pressure, retains sanctions against SDNs (Specially Designated Nationals) but this is mainly for domestic political reasons, designed to ensure that President Obama's declared policy "success" over Myanmar should be questioned if at all possible. However, these continuing sanctions, although limited, impinge on Western investment generally since US$ transfers into Myanmar normally transit New York where they are likely to be impounded if it is suspected that the recipient in Myanmar has any association with a listed SDN, even though the funds are not of US origin or are not related to any US investment interest. 
Thomas Fuller: New York Times - 19 July 2015
It’s the dawn of democracy in Myanmar. If only the Burmese had their own word for it. As this former dictatorship opens to the world, language is a stumbling block.
For half a century, Myanmar was so cut off from the outside world that people were jailed for owning an unauthorized fax machine. As the rest of the world was hurtling into the information age, the strict censorship of publications, limited access to global media and creaking connections to the Internet stunted the evolution of the Burmese language, leaving it without many words that are elsewhere deemed essential parts of the modern political and technical vocabulary.

Today, as Myanmar embraces change, many foreign words are being imported wholesale, but their meanings are getting lost in translation. Read more....

Robert Taylor: ISEAS Perspective - 26 June 2015
The confusion over the meanings of ethnicity which has vexed Myanmar politics since independence has its origins in the many misunderstandings which were perpetrated, unwittingly, by the Panglong Agreement and its subsequent interpretations. Written as a hastily agreed constitutional arrangement to ensure the unity of the entire colony prior to independence, it has been reinterpreted as a set of constitutional principles guaranteeing rights to ethnic groups. It did not and, in law, it could not. Continue reading.....
Derek Tonkin: Network Myanmar - 15 June 2015
The writer highlights a trilogy of statements by the Muslim Council of North Arakan in 1947 and 1948 which established the political imperative for what was later to become the Rohingya community. He takes a quizzical look at the recent Oslo Conference on the Rohingya situation. He comments as well on the purpose and results of Suu Kyi's visit to China last week and examines the prospects for constitutional reform even before the elections. He concludes that Suu Kyi as a Non-Executive President would be an ideal solution, but doubts that she would be the right person either for an exective presidency or Speaker of the Lower House under the present Constitution.

Interview with Professor Robert Taylor - Mizzima Weekly 
Professor Taylor notes that "the question of ethnicity in Myanmar politics has obviously been revitalised with the return to open politics and a free press since 2010. Much of the discussion is highly emotional, not grounded in history, and conceptually misleading.....
"Ethnicity since independence has mixed into a political cocktail from which demagogues drink and politicians, rather than providing the public guidance and leadership, do little to drain off except by appeasement.....The issue of ethnicity in Myanmar politics is not now being resolved, but rather encouraged, thus detracting public attention from other concrete issues such as the economy  or administrative and legal reform."  Read on.....

Stanley Weiss: Huffington Post - 13 April 2015
The writer examines the situation in which Suu Kyi finds herself as the elections approach. He writes:

"It has left Suu Kyi with an inescapable paradox: if she doesn't personally and publicly lobby for the constitution to change before the election, then nobody else will, since 'people are not ready to go to the barricades for her,' as a respected Burmese venture capitalist said to me. But if she repeatedly lobbies (as she has) for the constitution to change merely to allow her to run for president, she risks looking like she only cares about herself - which is exactly what's happening. As a long-time ambassador from the Middle East puts it, her continual petitioning has led many to think, 'She is self-centered and likes to lecture. She likes to play the role of being a symbol'."

He concludes:

"The disappointment felt by many former supporters was summed up by lawmaker U Thein Nyunt, who told a journalist last year, 'We've followed her leadership for two decades, but she's failed to get any results for her country. It is obvious now that she is not considering the people, but only her own power.'

"The Lady still uses the image of her father as often as possible. But maybe, deep in her heart, she believes that she'll never be in a position to make real change until she's President. Maybe being hailed as her nation's savior is more pressure than she, or many of us, could live up to. Or maybe the substance of Aung San Suu Kyi never really matched the symbol - and the West would do well to see that Myanmar is much more than The Lady."

Derek Tonkin writes: This closely argued and persuasive article merits careful reading. Stanley Weiss has dared to say what might well be in the minds of many. But though no longer the darling of the business class and intelligentsia,  Suu Kyi still commands respect and support among Burman (as contrasted with non-Burman) voters. A vote for the NLD candidate will still be seen by many as a vote for Suu Kyi who stood up to the Generals at great personal cost.  

Transnational Institute - April 2015
Important reconciliation and progress has been started in national politics under the government of President Thein Sein. But as the countdown accelerates towards a general election later this year, there is a risk that political reform and ethnic peace are faltering. To avoid this, clear markers must be agreed of processes of democratic reform and ethnic peace that guarantee the rights and involvement of all peoples and parties.

Constitutional reform and nationwide peace will be essential, and it is vital that the conduct of the general election is free and fair to ensure momentum in political reform. An inclusive political dialogue must be fostered at the national level to move beyond the practice of different parliamentary processes and ethnic ceasefire talks that do not provide a political roadmap for all citizens.

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Simon Tay, Cheryl Tan: The Nation (Bangkok) - 4 March 2015
The two authors, respectively chairman and assistant director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), analyse the current political and economic climate in Myanmar, and conclude:

Amidst this gathering momentum, the year-end elections represent a sense of finality and with it, much uncertainty. The finality of the election deadline looms as there is not much time left to see through key initiatives. It remains to be seen whether President Thein Sein will offer himself up for re-election, and whether he can gain support. 

Suu Kyi remains immensely popular within the country. Yet respect has grown for the efforts made by the current president and his administration. Many in the business community and among foreign investors will be keen to see continuity and stability for reforms, and hope for greater speed in the country's progress after the elections. In contrast, others may wish the 2015 elections to deliver change.

Desire in the West, especially, is not just for free and fair voting, but for the country to emerge as a full-fledged democracy. Neither view may be correct. Judging the country's progress purely according to political change and democracy may be overly idealistic. But emphasising the path of business-as-usual may fail to recognise the need for a more rapid and also steady reform. Myanmar's opening was always about both political and economic challenges, and their interplay will continue.

Financial Times Editorial - 15 February 2015
In a tour d'horizon of political prospects in 2015. the Financial Times concludes:

"Constitutional matters are just the tip of the iceberg. Whoever becomes president will confront a multitude of dangerous issues. Three are worth singling out.

  • One is reaching a settlement with the ethnic minorities. Without genuine federalism the project of building what is essentially a new country after half a century of sporadic civil war will be doomed.
  • Second, more effort must be made to spread the fruits of economic growth. The perception - and most likely the reality - is that the lion’s share of impressive growth is going to a few businessmen, many of whom got rich during the military era.
  • Third, the authorities must get a firmer grip on rising religious tension, most of it directed against the Muslim minority.

In Rakhine state, Muslims continue to be treated abominably. Instead of pandering to Buddhist chauvinism, the new government must set a more tolerant tone and ensure that Muslims are not treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Myanmar could yet be seen as a model transition. Much depends on what the generals do next."

Trevor Wilson ANU: East Asia Forum - 1 February 2015
Myanmar's initial reforms beginning in March 2011 were dramatic and surprised everyone, but they are still incomplete and not always operating well. Many problem areas have not yet undergone reform (such as land reforms, judicial system reform, and ending human rights abuses), meaning that much 'unfinished business' remains. But this does not mean that Myanmar's reform process has stalled. Continue reading.....
Nicholas Farrelly: Mizzima - 23 January 2015

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is often criticised for her inability to adjust to new challenges. To her credit, since she was released from house arrest in late 2010 she has made great strides as a political player. Her speeches are on topic and her campaign tactics are better than ever.

But she needs the people of Myanmar to put their faith in her. That is also why she has been so reluctant to court controversy. Human rights activists can judge her harshly for her inability to advocate on behalf of the Rohingya or Kachin.

Yet, sadly, there are no votes to be won in taking a bold stand on these issues, and millions may be lost. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – after all her sacrifices and those of her party – cannot afford to let that happen.

Derek Tonkin writes: a perceptive and realistic analysis of the prospects for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy at the General Elections later this year. "It makes sense to temper hopes of a democratic stampede". An incremental approach to power would seem to be her best strategy.


Can Burma's democracy and Obama's foreign policy success be saved?
Doug Bandow: Forbes - 8 December 2014
A thoughtful, comprehensive and realistic analysis by a highly qualified and leading Forbes contributor.  He observes that: "Washington could reimpose economic sanctions; indeed, it recently added to its blacklist someone believed to be impeding the reform process. However, returning to the policy of the past would be a dead end, since the ruling junta always cared more about preserving power than promoting prosperity. There’s no reason to think that calculation has changed for the generals. And if Europe was not prepared to follow suit, the gesture almost certainly would be ineffective..... 

"It would be tragic if Burma’s reform process remains stalled. But there’s no magic bullet to spur progress. Washington needs to act with both patience and prudence, fully aware of its limits.

"The best strategy would be to work with Europe and Japan to develop a list of priority political reforms and to communicate to Burma that continued progress will determine further allied support and cooperation. Washington and friends should recognize political realities in Naypyitaw and respect the military’s insecurities during the transition; for instance, a genuine power transfer could be combined with guarantees, however unpleasant in principle, for those yielding authority."

 Can Burma's civil society find its voice again?
Min Zin: Transitions - Foreign Policy  26 November 2014

The Burmese military is staging a comeback. Since the government launched its tentative liberalization process four years ago, the armed forces, the notorious Tatmadaw, have taken a backseat. Though it has members in key roles in all government institutions, it has refrained from fully exercising its coercive and all-encompassing constitutional prerogatives. But now the generals are signaling that they're no longer willing to keep a low profile, and instead hope to exercise the full extent of their power in the country's ethnic regions and in its parliament, in which 25 percent of the seats are reserved for military representatives.

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Despite the headlines, progress in Myanmar isn't slipping away
Jean-Marie Guéhenno and Richard Horsey: Reuters-Blog - 19 November 2014

Is Myanmar’s reform effort going into reverse?

Not even close. Yet if international support for its political transition seriously weakens in the face of recent setbacks, the prophecies of Myanmar’s critics may be fulfilled. The international community needs to show staying power and accept that the road to reform is long.

Myanmar is four years into a transition from 50 years of authoritarian rule and chronic, grinding civil conflicts. That change was never going to be easy. We should not be surprised that certain areas remain problematic or new difficulties arise.

Bad-news stories about Myanmar’s transition are easy to find. But the good-news stories reflect a broader trend. There is now substantial freedom of the press, for example, when not long ago there was no space for independent media. Nearly all political prisoners from the era of military government have also been released. Continue reading.....

Derek Tonkin writes: A welcome antidote to the flurry of negative reporting, mostly by US media, of the present "bumpy patch" in the democratisation process in Myanmar. It might have been helpful if participants in the lack-lustre debate on Human Rights in Myanmar in the UK House of Commons on 19 November 2014 had first read this article.

Myanmar's Transition: Economics or Politics
Gwen Robinson: Transitions Forum - November 2014
While the West’s attention focused on reported military abuses in Kachin state, the plight of stateless Muslim “Rohingya” in the country’s west, and the exclusion of some Muslim and ethnic groups from Myanmar’s controversial census in early 2014, the government stepped up reforms ranging from consumer protection laws to insurance industry deregulation, transparency in public tender processes, and the opening of banking and other business sectors. 

Against this sharply contrasting backdrop, old battle lines between pro- and anti-democratic forces are being redrawn as new rivalries emerge within and between executive and legislative branches. Traditional power centres have eroded or transformed, giving way to multiple forces and an emerging “new order” of leaders who will shape Myanmar’s future.

Little choice but to support reformists in Myanmar
Nirmal Ghosh: Straits Times Asia Report - 10 November 2014
President Thein Sein is beset by powerful competing forces and international opinion that remains fixated on the bad news and the role of Aung San Suu Kyi. Domestic problems also weigh heavily on President Obama as his Democratic Party lost control of the US Senate last week.

With just two years of the Obama presidency left, analysts expect increased gridlock in Washington. And ironically, while Myanmar rings with clamours for more democracy, Mr Obama faces a public that has grown cynical about the genuineness and effectiveness of America’s democracy.

But Myanmar’s political transition, if somewhat shaky, remains a foreign policy success and the US is unlikely to yank the welcome mat from under President Sein Thein. 

Derek Tonkin writes: A breath of fresh air, a welcome contrast to the unrelieved litany of criticism and complaint from human rights activists and US politicians.

Priscilla Clapp concludes: "The journey from deeply entrenched military oppression to sustainable democracy is long and winding and we cannot expect it to be accomplished overnight. If the US wishes to assist in tackling the country’s deep‐seated problems, such as continuing human rights abuses, land management, ethnic and religious conflict, and the military role in governance, it must remain engaged and not relegate itself to the sidelines with reimposition of sanctions and other policy measures that limit US assistance."

Healing a wounded country
Banyan: The Economist - 8 November 2014
Banyan examines the political stasis in Myanmar, the halting transformation from military to civilian rule and the possibility that the country could become a political issue in the US in the presidential elections in 2016.

On Aung San Suu Kyi, Banyan concludes: "Now she needs to do what politicians do, and find a way of reassuring her opponents, the army and its civilian proxies that a fair election and an NLD victory will not be the end of the world for them. That is hard if they barely talk to her, and when they do it is in a formal setting allowing no give and take. When Miss Suu Kyi was honoured in America’s Congress in 2012, Mrs Clinton made a speech, likening her to Nelson Mandela and in which she praised both for having realised that 'overcoming the past, healing a wounded country, building a democracy, would require moving from icon to politician.' The trouble is that too many others, including, it seems, the American government, prefer the icon and will not let her be a politician."

Meeting of civil society organizations in Yangon

Will Myanmar's reforms sideline Suu Kyi's influence?
Daniel Opacki: Dissident Voice  -29 September 2014
Mr Opacki, who is described as an Educator who writes about Myanmar, speculates on the course which Suu Kyi may take in the context of the 2015 elections. 

Derek Tonkin writes: Mr Opacki takes a jaundiced view of the political situation in Myanmar. His presentation however is undermined by a number of historical errors. Thus Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989, or ten months before the May 1990 elections, not afterwards; the law disqualifying Suu Kyi from the presidency is contained in the 2008 Constitution (Article 59), the provision was not written into a law passed after her release from house arrest in November 2010; and there is also no law in force or planned to prevent party members campaigning outside their home constituencies and the denial of reports to this effect has been carried even by Radio Free Asia.

Mr Opacki's lack of awareness of historical events and of the present situation must make his speculation less than persuasive. It is a brave man indeed who would today seek to predict the future of Myanmar over the next 18 months.

Too Much On
The Economist: Banyan - 13 September 2014
When an election commission of questionable independence capriciously calls off elections, you would expect its democratic critics to be up in arms. On September 7th Myanmar’s Union Election Commission announced that it was cancelling 35 by-elections expected later this year. Thirty-five vacant seats make up quite a chunk of parliament, which has 440 seats in the lower house and 224 in the upper one. Yet the reaction was muted. Some opposition politicians - and even representatives of the government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) - voiced protests, yet their hearts seemed not to be in it. To a political class with so much on its plate, the issue of by-elections seemed a distraction they could do without.Continue reading.....


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