Viewpoint: Has a year of civilian rule changed Burma?

By Marie Lall
South Asia analyst

image captionBurma is not about to turn into a Western-style democracy

One year after the controversial Burmese elections the debate about whether there have been any significant changes inside the country rages on louder than ever.

The debate, as usual, is conducted largely outside of Burma, and today the battle lines are drawn between old guard activists who maintain everything Nay Pyi Taw does is window dressing, and the slowly increasing numbers of those giving credit to the new government.

Inside the country the changes are perceived as gradual but real, and everyone is hoping the government will continue on the reform path.

So what are the main milestones?

One can really only look at the period after the handover of the military's State Peace and Development Council to the new government on the last day of the first parliamentary sitting at the end of March 2011. Prior to that, the military was still in charge.

The new structure has been tested by what has seemed like an internal struggle between more reform-minded and more hard-line ministers. Yet despite this internal contest, quite a few things have been engendered:

Just before the second sitting of parliament there was direct engagement of the government with Aung San Suu Kyi. First there was a dialogue with Labour Minister Aung Kyi and subsequently her visit to Nay Pyi Taw, with her meeting the president.

Since that time she has said herself that she believes changes are happening. The question remains if her party, the NLD, will re-register and take part in the political processes of the country.

It is likely to have been discussed but details of the negotiations are not in the public domain.

No-strings release

Another big milestone was the release of at least 220 and possible as many as 270 political prisoners as part of the 6,000+ amnesty in September this year. The amnesty resulted in some controversy on the numbers of prisoners of conscience who had not been included.

It emerged that rather than the universally accepted figure of 2,000 political prisoners, the real figure was more likely to be around 700 (even the NLD holds a list with that number).

image captionHundreds of prisoners have been released under an amnesty

This means that close to 30% of political prisoners have been freed, and for the first time without any conditions attached to their release. This is a big step for the government and one for which the reformers in Nay Pyi Taw probably had to battle hard.

A few days later President Thein Sein suspended the construction of the Myitsone Dam, despite vocal protests by China.

While other dams are still planned, and the Chinese presence in the northern ethnic areas remains unchallenged, the halting of the construction in light of the geographic and ecological dangers shows that the thinking of the government goes beyond receiving Chinese money and political support no matter what the cost to the Burmese population.

The president followed this announcement with a trip to Burma's other giant neighbour, India, rebalancing at least symbolically its foreign policy priorities in the region.

India has to date been much less involved than China, and prior to this it was understood that northern Burma was simply becoming a Chinese satellite.

New labour laws

Most importantly for the people of Burma, yet hardly mentioned abroad, have been the legislative changes.

The passing of new labour laws allowing the formation of labour unions is a big step and according to the ILO at least the draft they saw was up to international standards. As Burma's industries develop, workers will now have rights they have not had since 1962.

Many other issues have been debated in parliament since August.

They include education in ethnic languages for ethnic states, the legality of private education and the peace process with ethnic insurgent groups.

Not all motions are passed, but they are raised and debated, again something quite new. Internet controls have been relaxed and press censorship is now far less strict.

Why the change?

Burma is well set on a reform path and many ask why. In fact many, especially in the West, will say that it was tough policies such as sanctions which brought these changes about.

In India we are also hearing those who say their policies brought about the changes - here it was not sanctions, but quiet constructive engagement which set Burma off on the right path.

The fact is that neither Western sanctions nor Asian constructive engagement should be credited for what we are witnessing today.

The new government needs to be given credit for re-assessing the country's position in light of three phenomena: Burma wants the Asean chair in 2014, needs the Asean free trade area in 2015 for its economy to thrive, and the current government wants to win the 2015 elections.

Overarching these objectives though is the major interest of assuring the security and stability of the state which is now thought best achieved through reform rather than repression.

Where now?

Despite all these quiet successes and new policies, issues remain.

Fighting in ethnic areas, especially in Kachin state, continues. However more recently various groups such as the Wa and the Mongla have taken up Nay Pyi Taw's new structure for negotiation - the peace committees at state level.

There have also been talks between other Shan groups and the New Mon State Party (NMSP). The issue of the Border Guard Force, the major stumbling block in the previous negotiation, seems to have been put on the back burner.

Hopefully in the near future the new structure for negotiation will bear fruit across the country, including Kachin State.

So where does Burma go from here?

Burma is not about to turn into a Western-style democracy, but Nay Pyi Taw has set out on a strong path for reform which will benefit the Burmese people.

The first priority for the government is now to set the economy right, both with regard to exchange rates to boost trade as well as with regard to employment and wages so as to improve the living standards of ordinary Burmese.

The government is well aware of the economic problems the country is facing. If the government is allowed to continue on its present path change will be gradual but life-changing for those living inside the country.

Marie Lall is a Reader in Education Policy and South Asian Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.