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Myanmar's big week: A backgrounder

Myanmar's big week: A backgrounder

With the ninth East Asia Summit and the the 25th ASEAN Summit being held back-to-back in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, this week has been widely seen as a 'coming out' for a country that has been slowly reforming, economically and politically, after years of international isolation that ended in 2011.

But there have been concerns that those reforms are stalling, and prominent voices in the country, such as democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have said that the West remains too 'over-optimistic about the reform process.'

With interest in Myanmar so high this week, here is a selection of the best recent analysis on Myanmar from The Interpreter, beginning with Andrew Selth's piece on the vexed question of whether we should refer to Burma or Myanmar:

The name 'Burma' derives from the ethnic Burman (or Bamar) majority and, following local custom, was adopted by the British colonialists in the 19th century. Yet the more formal indigenous name 'Myanmar' has been used for titles, in literature and on official documents for centuries. The English language version of the 1947 constitution, prepared the year before the country regained its independence, referred to the 'Union of Burma', while the Burmese language version used the name 'Myanmar'.

The adoption of the more formal name by the military government was part of a wider move to rid the country of the vestiges of the colonial era. At the same time, a range of other names were introduced which conformed more closely to their original pronunciation in the Burmese language. Thus Rangoon became Yangon, the Irrawaddy River became the Ayeyarwady River, and so on. In this, the regime was following the practice of many other governments in many other countries.

Internal names are a purely national concern. The international community, however, is required to take a formal position on the name of a country in English.

Andrew Selth has also written on the political maneuvering surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to run for president in 2016. It seems the odds are getting longer:

... the armed forces remain the ultimate arbiters of power in Burma. They have stepped back from day-to-day government and allowed other institutions to develop. However, thanks to the 2008 constitution and the appointment of military officers to key positions, the Tatmadaw still effectively controls the government and parliament. It also commands the state's coercive apparatus, including the police and intelligence agencies.

Aung San Suu Kyi's confrontational approach already worries the armed forces. Appeals to the Tatmadaw's rank and file for support, and calls for foreign governments to put greater pressure on Naypyidaw, are likely to confirm the doubts already held by the generals about her readiness to preserve the country's stability, unity and sovereignty — the three 'national causes' to which the armed forces remain deeply committed.

Having chosen to permit a more open political and economic system to develop, the Tatmadaw seems determined to retain control over the process. It is not backing away from the goal of a more modern, prosperous and respected country. However, it does not yet seem ready to put its trust in an inexperienced civilian politician, backed by a fractious party, to manage developments in a way that safeguards Burma's national interests, as it sees them.

It is also worth checking out Rhys Thompson's analysis of Myanmar's constitution, and issues of 'foreign interference': [fold]

This response isn't surprising. Myanmar feels strongly about perceived foreign interference. In April, for example, the Government accused the UK of trying to interfere with its internal affairs after Hugo Swire, Minister for Asia in the UK Foreign Office, summoned Myanmar's Ambassador to urge Myanmar to restore humanitarian access in Rakhine.

This issue also poses problems for the many foreign entities, including governments, wanting to be part of Myanmar's political transition. Leading up to the elections, some may want to provide assistance or 'capacity building' to local political parties. But Myanmar's recent responses to perceived foreign interference highlight the sensitivity of such activity.

There are also potential legal problems. Article 407(c) of the constitution specifically prohibits political parties from 'directly or indirectly' receiving and expending 'financial, material and other assistance from a foreign government, a religious association, other association or a person from a foreign country'. Non-compliance can result in parties being de-registered, and it is unlikely much latitude will be given, as parties have already been warned.

And here's Rhys Thompson Myanmar's corruption problem:

Thein Sein may be sincere about wanting to eliminate corruption and improve transparency in Myanmar. And if he plans to serve only one term, he may be more willing to push reforms that are likely to be unpopular with some of his colleagues. However, whether those responsible for enforcing these measures share his political will, or instead have enough of a vested interest to ensure they are not fully enforced, remains to be seen.

Myanmar's ability to address official corruption, and the will to enforce anti-corruption measures in a meaningful way, will be tested in the coming years. This may highlight a gap between Thein Sein's rhetoric and what actually occurs in practice.

Elliot Brennan has also written on Myanmar's growing humanitarian crisis and internal conflict:

Almost a quarter of a million people have been internally displaced in the country's recent conflicts. Heavy fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) in Kachin state has displaced 99,000 people. In Rakhine state, troubled by continuing communal violence, 137,000 people have been internally displaced, half of whom don't have secure access to food. 

And also it's implications for terrorism within the country:

In fact, attacks by Islamic extremists in Myanmar seem far less likely than a violent backlash from nervous and angry mobs of Buddhist extremists, at least in the short term. These will likely be provoked by firebrand clerics such as the much criticised 'bin Laden of Buddhism', U Wirathu. His movements (which track closely with the onset of recent religiously inspired violence in the country) and those of his '969' movement will be closely watched. With 140,000 Muslim Rohingya confined to IDP camps, security of these massive complexes will need to be significantly improved.

The prospect of a widespread and a polarising religious conflict appears to have escalated. So there has never been a  better time for interfaith dialogue and calls for religious tolerance from government and religious leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi should be pressed to finally speak on this issue. These efforts should be buttressed by greater regional security cooperation on the subcontinent — an effort that has been anaemic for far too long. As I have long advocated with senior government officials in Bangladesh and Myanmar in regard to the Rohingya, regional problems require regional solutions. Now is the time for those solutions to be markedly enhanced. 

Photo by Flickr user Trevor Mills.

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