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Derek Tonkin writes: Apart from the US, Western Governments have now rescinded all economic and financial sanctions apart from the export licensing of arms and military equipment.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.
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....
- Myanmar's permanent secretaries reflect some permanent interests: David Steinberg - Nikkei Review
- Myanmar's military keeps firm grip on democratic transition: Vikram Nehru - Carnegie Endowment
- Aung San Suu Kyi - Where are you? Jonah Fisher - BBC Asia News
- Burma's Revolution from Below: Elliott Presse-Freeman - Foreign Policy 20 April 2015
"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'."
"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.
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.
- Citizenship, ethnicity and electioneering: Eliott Brennan - Lowy Interpreter
- Thein Sein committed to charter reform talk - Democratic Voice of Burma
- Lukewarm response to latest 48-Party confab - The Irrawaddy
- A hopeful moment for civil society in Myanmar: Andrew Morgan - New Mandala
- A failing engagement with Burma - Washington Post Editorial
- Have patience with progress in Burma - David Steinberg responds
- Burma is moving toward democracy - Danny Russel, Tom Malinowski
- Bertil Lintner: Reforms have run their course - DVB Interview
- Backsliding on reform in Burma - New York Times Editorial
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.
"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."
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.
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."
- A make or break year for Myanmar: Hunter Martson - The Diplomat
- Stalled reforms herald a bleak future: Larry Jagan - Bangkok Post
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.
Latest Views and Op-Eds
- America's foreign policy and Myanmar's democratic transition - Aung Tun
- Opposition to keep pushing for constitutional change - Aung San Suu Kyi
- Myanmar regime in test of solidarity - Alan P MacDonald
- Education protests offer lessons - Mael Raynaud
- Disappointment with 2015 Elections and constitutional change - CP Kuppuswamy
- Bengali Muslims who emigrated to Assam not 'Illegal Bangladeshis' - Kaustubh Deka
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."
- Text of letter by Members of the House of Representatives to President Obama
- Obama: Champion democracy and human rights with humility: Ernie Bower - CSIS
- US divisions over Myanmar threaten to overshadow Obama visit - FT
- How do you say 'gridlock' in Burmese? Larry Jagan - Foreign Policy
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
- Press statement by Burma Partnership on Myanmar Civil Society Forum
- Forum of Myanmar civil society organisations damn stalled reforms - Mizzima
- A scathing verdict on Burma's stalled reforms - Human Rights Watch
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.....