- Myanmar in 2014:‘Tacking Against the Wind’
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Having garnered widespread acclaim for its reform efforts during the first three years in office, Myanmar’s transitional government in 2014 found itself increasingly under attack from critics, both at home and abroad. Opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi whose approval of President Thein Sein’s reform agenda in 2011 had done much to convince sceptics that Myanmar was truly turning a new leaf now publically complained that reforms had stalled. Over the course of the year, talk of backsliding became an increasingly common refrain among human rights groups and the media. Particular concern centred on the failure of the government to revise the Constitution, crackdowns on the media and social protesters, armed clashes in ceasefire areas, growing anti-Muslim ferment, and major problems of land grabbing.
The critics did not have it all their own way. In a press conference in Yangon in November, U.S. President Barack Obama explicitly backed President Thein Sein, whom he had received in the White House during better days in 2012, arguing “Myanmar’s democratisation process is real”.1 Echoing this sentiment, the International Crisis Group later the same week warned against overstating the significance of recent difficulties:
Myanmar is four years into a transition from 50 years of authoritarian rule and chronic, grinding civil conflicts… 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.2
This more pragmatic view seemed to be reflected also in a number of [End Page 223] opinion surveys conducted by Myanmar Egress,3 the International Republican Institute4 and the Asia Foundation5 in 2014, which all indicated that a majority of Myanmar people were positive about the country’s political and economic prospects (although this was more apparent in the Burman heartland than in the ethnic states).
Yet, when it comes to shaping international perceptions, the media invariably have the upper hand and over the course of 2014, pressure grew on Western governments in particular, to reconsider their support of the Thein Sein government; some Western activists and parliamentarians even called for reintroducing sanctions,6 although Aung San Suu Kyi explicitly rejected such a dramatic step.7
Given the potency of this question of the state of the reform process and the implications of the answer for the country’s future, it provides a useful focal point for the present review of developments in 2014, which focuses on four key areas: democratization, peace-building, socio-economic development, and international engagement.
Myanmar is not a democracy yet. The president and other key government leaders were effectively appointed by the head of the previous military junta, Senior General Than Shwe, after the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) secured a landslide victory in multi-party, but flawed, elections in November 2010. Moreover, the 2008 Constitution, which came into force with the inauguration of the new government in March 2011, formally reserves major areas of power for unelected military officers. Yet, the current government has shown a clear commitment, in both words and deeds, to promote democratic institutions and values, and developments in 2014 remained broadly positive. While the military indicated that it would veto any effort to amend the Constitution to reduce its political role at this point, existing democratic institutions continued to perform robustly and the prospects for a freely elected government emerging in 2015 looked good.
The democratic deficits of the 2008 Constitution go to the heart of Myanmar’s transition process and have been the main target of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) since they joined Parliament [End Page 224] in 2012. The urgency of this issue is rooted in article 59(f) of the Constitution, which disqualifies anyone with foreign family ties from becoming president and thus would block the opposition leader, whose children are British nationals, from assuming the highest office even if the NLD wins the 2015 elections. However, other, arguably more fundamental...