The new Myanmar

Updated: Jan 11, 2012, 12:45 PM IST

Kamna Arora

It is indeed a surprise. A country ruled for five decades by a repressive military junta is now basking in the wave of democracy and reforms. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is today undergoing one of history’s most remarkable political transformations.

“We hope that the long darkness through which the Burmese people have lived may now be coming to an end,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague who recently concluded his Myanmar trip, the first visit to the Southeast Asian nation by a senior British official since 1955.

His statement is justified in the wake of the fact that in 1990, the military junta overlooked the electoral triumph of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party (National League for Democracy). Not only the NLD was crushed after that, but also its leaders were either killed or jailed by the military junta. The military regime also tried to strangulate the freedom of the ‘The Lady’, who spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest. The country left the international community stunned in September 2007 when its security forces cruelly beat and slaughtered monks peacefully protesting in the streets. The number of political prisoners in Myanmar’s jails further dampened the hope of seeing a democratic Myanmar.

Human rights abuses in Myanmar were terrible. The armed forces were often accused by the human rights organisations of using rape as a weapon of war.

Today, the scenario is changing. A new civilian government, however still backed by military, is in charge. The government wants to parley with Suu Kyi, who has confirmed run for a seat in Parliament in by-elections on April 01. Political prisoners have been freed, although at a lesser pace. Some of the restrictions on media have been lifted and trade unions have been legalised.

Myanmar`s move towards reform was cautiously acknowledged by the US, which sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the country recently. It was the first visit of such a senior American official to Myanmar in around 50 years. She was followed by Britain’s William Hague. The European Union is also planning to open a representative office in Yangon.

But the question arises: Why is Myanmar changing? Did the tactics of both pressure as well as engagement worked in case of Myanmar, which was reeling under numerous economic sanctions? It does not seem so.

Myanmar has been indifferent to Western sanctions for so long. And in fact, Myanmar has been managing to do business with countries like India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Hence, cash inflow was there.

Some reports say the overdependence on China made Myanmar leaders uneasy. The doubt even got firm when the new government postponed a dam, which was funded by China. The change in Myanmar is reportedly to balance China with West.

Another reason could be that Myanmarese leaders were seeing some other profit in opening up to reforms. The long-ruling senior general, Than Shwe, might have pre-empted ‘Myanmar Spring’. And embracing reforms was a better idea to continue to hold on to the wealth these leaders have accumulated.

Whatever the reason may be, after the Arab uprising surprised nearly all the experts on Middle East, it is Myanmar`s sudden reforms that have captured the attention of the foreign policy observers across the world.

Hope, the reforms are not short-lived and Myanmar joins the club of true democracies.