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Special Report II
Last Updated: 03/02/2012
Myanmar: Cause for Cautious Optimism
Phyu Kyi Khaing

After nearly 50 years of totalitarian military government, the Union of Myanmar is beginning to open up. Rapid political change since the 2010 election has seen a renewed peace process, the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, greater press freedom, and the easing of foreign sanctions. As Phyu Kyi Khaing explains however, the story may be too good to be true.

Myanmar is a country that has seen much joy and pain in the 49 years it was under strict military rule, from 1962 until 2010. After the 2010 election, the country has been transforming into a democratic state, although the ruling party is still controlled by former military officers, who are now calling themselves a civilian government party. The 2010 election results were highly criticized for fraud and the ‘prevoting system’, which allegedly forced citizens to vote for the military-ruling party before the elections took place. Additionally, in the new constitution, 56 representatives will be nominated and appointed in Parliament by the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Service, which represents 25 % of all seats in Parliament. It is widely believed that the representatives in the new government systems are symbolic, and only appointed to comply with the former military generals’ orders, thus allowing the system to proceed.

Radio Liberty/AFP

In the 1990 elections, National League for Democracy leader and Noble Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won over 80% of the seats in Parliament, but the military government never recognized the election result. Instead of obtaining her rightful place in the government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for 15 years from a pre-existing conviction for her political activism. The Myanmar government is known within the country and throughout the international community as a violator of human rights because of the many cases of political and judicial killings, disappearances, torture and other cruel punishment, denial of fair trials, repressed freedoms of speech and press, as well as assembly or association, a lack of respect for political rights, and a government characterized by corruption and dictatorship. Throughout the reign of the military government, Myanmar people’s way of life was fully associated with misery and obstacles for the implementation of human rights.

After the nominally civilian government dominated by former military generals took office last March, however, they have surprised everyone by enacting significant changes such as releasing many political prisoners, easing media censorship, recognizing freedom of speech, and making some important policy amendments – including amendments to the constitution. Additionally, both international and internal businesses now face less restrictions and the hydro power dam, which is joint-project with China, has come to a halt. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was set free in 2010 and the new government built a constructive agreement to work together with her. People who used to fear meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi because of the political complications it would bring are now able to welcome her during her political tour. The Government peace team has signed a cease-fire agreement with some of the ethnic minorities, although the discussions with other groups are still in process. The opportunities are growing everyday and a new era is beginning for the country.

A Fragile Peace Process

Myanmar is composed of eight major ethnic groups: Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burmese, Mon, Rakhine and Shan, and another 135 minorities. Of these, Burmese dominates with 65%, and, almost all members of military government are Burmese. Since Independence in 1948, tensions between the military government and strong ethnic groups such as Kachin, Karen, and Shan led to protracted armed conflicts, exacerbated by failures to implement political equality and democratic decentralization. After sixty years of armed conflicts, the junta conducted a series of negotiations and succeeded in establishing the cease-fire agreement with Kachin Independence Army (KIO) in 1994 and an oral cease-fire agreement with some of the major ethnic armed groups such as Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) which was separated from KNU, and Shan. The military government has also maintined peace agreements with three smaller groups: The United Wa State Army, Kokant, and Pao ethnic groups, which are proposed as special autonomous regions.

In 2011, however, fighting renewed in the state of Kachin due to the Myit Sone dam project and the government troops’ encroachment on KIA controlled territory. The oral peace agreement could not hold. Earlier, late in 2000s, most ceasefire agreements tended to break up in a response to the government’s demand of forming Border Guard Force (BGF). As the military government has been violating ethnic minority rights, denying self-determination, and the decentralization of power to the state level, it is clear that the cease-fire talks and agreements by themselves are not enough to establish genuine peace.

It is very hopeful that members from all sides of the current government have expressed their common concerns about the importance of reengaging in peace talks with ethnic nationalities to achieve a real democratic state. Within three months, the new government announced that the peace-agreement with all ethnic arm groups will be attempted. The U Thein Sein government organized a New Negotiating Team which signed preliminary peace-agreements with 17 ethnic armed groups, including a historic cease-fire agreement with Karen National Union (KNU) in January, 2012. However, renewed fighting has been reported as soon after the agreement as February, 2012.

On one hand, it is heartening that the peace talks have begun. However, due to long-term exploitation of ethnic minorities’ rights and discriminatory negotiation process, the ethnic groups are concerned that the current situation and the government’s unfair policies are unlikely to be changed. Still, we can expect to see the government step up its efforts to solve the conflict with the ethnic armed groups because the United States and European Union have called for the end of ethnic conflict as one of the perquisites to lift the sanctions and provide the economic assistance to the debt ridden government.

Cautious Optimism

The current changes of Myanmar – changes which I had never imagined I would see in my life before – are happening at a rapid pace. For my entire life, I have seen the way people are concerned to speak up about the harmful political system and military regime in Myanmar. Citizens have to be very cautious when speaking negatively about the military government because it is strictly prohibited. Suddenly, the press is now able to report openly about the government, and photos of opposition parties can be published, although there are still restrictions.

Hilary Clinton with U Thein Sein, December, 2011. Photo: US State Department

The international community is optimistic for Myanmar, and expects the result of the upcoming by-election to be free and fair. Myanmar, once the richest but now the poorest nation in South East Asia, has become the centre of attention for many world leaders because of its drastic transition from the military reign to democratic values. Almost all nations welcome its moving forward to a democratic state with rapid development. For instance, the United States and other Western nations have endorsed the current government’s reforms and urged that they should continue with transparency. The President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar also promises the world that there will be no “U-turn” in this march towards democracy.

Myanmar people see the current situation, which breaks with five decades of direct military rule, as setting a foundation upon which human rights and economic development can be built. I believe that the current situation is crucial for the future in which everyone is equal before the law. As mentioned above, the U Thein Sein government has already taken a lot of affirmative action that convince the Myanmar people that his government is very reliable for building a peaceful, prosperous and inclusive state by means of democracy.

During the military regime, people who stood on the opposite side of the military government were thrown into jail for long terms with various edicts and decrees, which were designed to repress dissent. Once, a rapper who spoke out about the faults of the ruling junta was arrested at the Yangon International Airport when he returned from overseas and sentenced to a 15 years conviction for possession of foreign currency. Similarly, eminent NLD artists who used their art work to speak out against public figures and promote human rights were sentenced to life-time imprisonments on various charges. The international community calls these persons political prisoners and asked the junta to release them immediately. In response to the strong international pressure, the military junta adamantly denied that there were political prisoners in Myanmar and claimed that those NLD people were criminals. The current elected government has acknowledged that they were prisoners because of their beliefs and have released them, which some have seen as proof of the government’s desire to reconcile with the international community and meet the standard of democracy.

Four years ago, when the constitution was published, some articles regarding political party registration provoked strong criticism for their effect on the NLD, the main opposition party. For example, one of the articles stated that party members must not be prisoners or criminals and, if they are, the party must expel them while they are serving their terms. At that moment, it was obvious that the articles were intended to split the NLD from its core members, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. After the referendum in 2008, the military regime announced that the constitution had been approved by 94.6 percent of the population, which was regarded as an inconceivable result by many. In response, opposition parties were determined to boycott the election and refused to register as political parties. This led to President U Thein Sein’s amendment, which was greatly welcomed by local and international communities. NLD and other parties have now registered as political parties and are preparing to participate in the upcoming by-election. People now believe that the by-election is all inclusive and they hope that the result will be free and fair.

The media acts as eyes and ears of the public and often the voice and vision as well. The power of media is enormous in promoting human rights and indicating the corruptness, incompetence, and flaws of the governing body. In Myanmar, under the military regime, the media has been utilized as a tool to spread propaganda and inform the population of policies. The regime controlled daily newspapers and there was no freedom of expression in the press. There were censorship boards in each type of media, and the boards determined which excerpts and texts were allowed, and which were banned from public release. Now, still there are censorship boards and some restrictions on media; however, the media can question publicly the actions and manoeuvres of governments and organizations. Movements of journalists and artists championing their rights can be read in journals and watched on television because the U Thein Sein government has relaxed the tenure hold on media and promised that, step-by-step, the restrictions will continue to be relieved. In the future, it is highly possible that media will be free of censorship, and will be credible because of proper transparency. People’s opinions and feelings will be freely expressed through media outlets, and governments will be questioned without fear or harsh repercussions.

UN Photo/UNIC Yangon

One of the major steps taken by U Thein Sein government toward democracy is the recognition of Daw Daw Aung San Su Kyi as a public figure and giving attention to her voice and that of her supporters. As mentioned above, the first democratic election was held in 1990 and the election winner was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party NLD. However, the military government, despite affirming that the election was free and fair, denied to transfer the power. Instead, the military heads formed a government of their own and began to rule the nation. During their administration, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spent more than a decade in house arrest or in jail. She had no right to travel out of the city. Meaning that she was not recognized and the voices of her supporters were ignored. In many townships and cities, NLD party members were forced to abandon their party or sent to jail. The columns of the state-owned newspaper sought to defame and disgrace the NLD party and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Privately owned journals and press were not allowed to print her photo and her news. Now, the U Thein Sein government accepts her as a public figure and welcomed her when she disclosed her desire to participate in the coming by-election. This recognition is vital to Myanmar because it is one of the reasons for the governments of the United States and the EU have cited as they begin to discuss removing or reducing their sanction upon debt-ridden Myanmar.

Sanctions: A Brief History

The United States of America, the European Commission and the United Nations have all imposed sanctions against Myanmar through different mechanisms with the purpose of isolating the military regime in international community and forcing domestic policy changes, many of which are now being enacted. The sanctions include an arms embargo, a ban on the travel of military officers, as well as their families and associates, restrictions on foreign investment, and the freezing of assets.

Most critical, however, have been the economic sanctions. US sanctions against Myanmar have been comprehensive and significant since the 1988 political suppression, and they have been renewed several times in subsequent years. For their part, the EU adopted a common position which included arms embargoes in 1998 and Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan also restricted exports and imports and investment in Myanmar.

The impact of the economic sanctions is controversial as restrictions in trade result in severe hardship which must be burdened by ordinary people rather than the targeted military regime and their associates. The military still holds immense power, and the sectors most affected are the working and middle class people. It is questionable if the sanctions have really met the required goals, and, if not, what alternative strategies can be used for the aim of changing of political situation. Eventually, the result mentioned that sanctions, especially economic limitations imposed by foreign powers on Myanmar are not the only effective tools for changing the political situation in the country.

When foreign investment withdrew from the country, the most affected people were the basic workers in the garment industry. According to US estimates, over 60,000 people were unemployed in the garment field alone as a direct result of the sanctions, and, between 2003 and 2004, Myanmar per capita incomes decreased from US $300 to US $225.[1] Of course, the human effects of this policy are not well reflected in the numbers. Most factory workers are female, lacking in formal education, and coming from marginalized and underdeveloped areas of the country with the hope of supporting their families. When they moved to industrial cities like Yangon, which was once the capital of Myanmar, the were led to the factories, especially the garment business. After sanctions were imposed by foreign powers, they became jobless and one opportunity was welcome to them, the sex industry.

Postcard from Myanmar, Department of Tourism

Another impact of the sanctions has been the decline of the tourism industry. Many countries forbid their citizens to travel to Myanmar or to invest in the tourist sector as they believe most businesses are directly linked to the military government and their relatives. As a consequence, transportation workers, tourist guides, Myanmar traditional craft businesses, and the hotel industry have all been disenfranchised. Similarly, young entrepreneurs and educated people have had to give up their connections with the foreign investment and international trade system. As a result, many have left their homes and communities to live and work abroad.

Although the international community targeted their sanctions directly at the military government, those in power continued to profit from relations with neighbouring countries such as China, India, and ASEAN. These countries continued to trade in gems, timber, and other goods. Andréasson’s article “Evaluating the effects of economic sanctions against Burma” mentions that in a 2007 meeting, China’s ambassador declared that the “Myanmar issue is an internal affair of the country and does not pose any threat to international or regional peace and security. This is the common wish of every nation that wants to sincerely help Myanmar.”[2] However, most of Myanmar people believe that the deep engagement between Myanmar and China has extended the leadership of the military regime, to the benefit of the government followers, but not the whole society.

If the sanctions continue to lead the government to communicate deeply with China, it is likely that Myanmar’s natural resources will be exploited rapidly in near future. Myanmar people believe that China supports the government for their national interests which are focusing on geopolitics and natural resources, such as transporting oil and gas from the Bay of Bengal to China. This explains why, in an interview with a Chinese-based magazine, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently urged China not to look at their interest alone. Another area of Myanmar’s foreign relations, arms trade with Russia, has had significant diplomatic implications. Therefore, two huge power are backing Myanmar government against international community; in January 2007, China and Russia vetoed the resolution of the US in the UN Security Council. India originally criticized Myanmar’s military government, but has increasingly cooperated with China’s growing influence in trade and politics. The military junta has managed to gain considerable advantage by playing off of India and China’s regional rivalry.

Taken together, the on-going, multi-layered conflict that involves various groups within Myanmar, the international community, and regional powers, has weakened the country’s social and economic position, all while the military regime continues to hold strong state power and profit from relations with neighbouring countries and government supporters.

Recently, the EU and US agreed to ease restrictions on Myanmar, especially lifting the travel bans against government’s officials. The World Bank and IMF have pledged to restart the relations with government, which has been stopped for 25 years.


We, the Myanmar people, were not expecting these changes to happen so rapidly, and I am optimistic about the outcome. The Myanmar people are not feeling as fearful about being arrested because of our political opinions, and we are experiencing a new kind of journalism. Although I am optimistic about the changes in Myanmar, it is hard to fully accept the claims that the government is making. We have lived for so long under strict military rule that it is hard to totally believe what is occurring. Time will reveal the true nature of U Thein Sein and his government, and I hope that he does not let our country down.

[1] Ewing-Chow, J. (2007) First Do No Harm: Myanmar Trade Sanctions and Human Rights. Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights 5 (2).

[2] Andréasson, G. (2007) Evaluating the effects of economic sanctions against Burma. Unpublished Thesis. Lunds Universitet.

Phyu Kyi Khaing is a Master's candidate in the department of Gender and Peace and the Uiversity for Peace.