The Time Has Come for Economic Reform in Myanmar

Burmese kyat. Photo: onourownpath/flickr

On the eve of a critically important IMF Article IV Consultation Mission to Myanmar, the basic question is: where’s the beef on economic reform?  After over a year of post-election policy debate, meaningful economic reform initiatives have been meager.  Allowing more room for union rights is an important step, and holding national conferences to talk about strategies for poverty alleviation and agriculture sector improvement are extremely welcome.

But the economic underpinnings needed for a successful democratic transition have not yet been addressed.  These include: (a) policy reforms and actions to tackle emerging macroeconomic problems such as exchange rate appreciation and inflation; (b) concrete measures to stimulate the private sector; and (c) reforms in the exchange rate, financial system, investment policies, and state-owned enterprises that address entrenched military interests and control over economic resources that are impeding national economic development.

Sanctions for Sanctions’ Sake?

Still not much to celebrate. Photo: Valerie Sticher

Last week, the EU eased its long-held travel and financial restrictions on four Burmese ministers and lifted the ban on high-level visits to the country. The decision follows the swearing-in of a new government in March and is the first partial reversal of punitive measures against the suppressive regime. So, are things finally heading in the right direction?

It’s easy to suggest otherwise. The elections in November last year were neither free, nor fair. The new, nominally civilian regime is still dominated by the military elite. Praise for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest is hardly due, given the regime’s bizarre reasoning for extending her detention in the first place. And ethnic conflicts are still a sad (and under-reported) reality in the resource-rich country. But some subtle changes give hope for restrained optimism. Perhaps most importantly, powers are now distributed more widely. In the past, literally everything – from defense and security issues to social and economic matters – had been controlled by a single, authoritarian leader. Now there are four (partially overlapping) key centers of power: the presidency, the military, the parliament and the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

These changes are not the result of sanctions, but most likely part of Than Shwe’s exit strategy. In an attempt to avoid the miserable fate he imposed on his predecessor, Than Shwe has put in place constitutional arrangements that make it difficult for a single person to emerge as a new strongman.

A New Stage for an Old Drama

Back to Praying; Photo: Steve Punter/flickr

On 31 January 2011, Burma’s parliament will convene in the country’s newly erected capital, Nay Pyi Taw, for the very first time. The opening session will take place 85 days after the nation’s first elections in 20 years, in which the junta’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claims to have won almost 80 percent of the seats. The new National Assembly will come to consist of an Upper House with 168 elected seats and 56 reserved for the military, and a Lower House with 330 elected and 110 military seats. With solid majorities of 129 seats in the Upper House and 259 in the Lower House that the USDP achieved through the rigged November elections, plus the 25 percent of seats reserved for the military, the new system will ensure – in a new and legal way – the continuation of the old military-ruled order.

The Burmese junta is obviously forcefully pressing ahead with its plans to create a “discipline-flourishing democracy”. Parliament’s first task will be to set up an electoral college with representatives from the three chambers in order to nominate a new president. According to the 2008 constitution, the president does not need to be an elected member of parliament but must be familiar with military affairs. According to political observers, Than Shwe, junta chief since 1992 and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is therefore a likely candidate, as are Generals Maung Aye and Shwe Mann, the second and third-highest ranking officers in the ruling military.

On the surface, it thus seems as if little has changed in these three months since the elections and daily life has remained virtually unchanged for the bulk of the Burmese people. There has been no release of prisoners, no relaxation of censorship, and no improvement in the standard of living. Meanwhile, Burma’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have hailed the election as progress and called on Western nations to drop their economic and financial sanctions.

Global Media Forum Day 1: First Encounters

Global Media Conference poster in Bonn / photo: Cristina Viehmann, ISN
Global Media Conference poster in Bonn / photo: Cristina Viehmann, ISN

Once the capital of West Germany, the city of Bonn appears unexpectedly modest and tranquil today. However, some converted official buildings and the placards reminding of the 60th anniversary of the Federal Republic do actually bring back the city’s important steps in Germany’s democratic history.

Despite its apparent modesty, what Bonn represents today is a perfect conference city. Exempli gratia, more than 4,000 participants are meeting these days in Bonn for the Climate Change Talks.

These talks are taking place very close to the World Conference Centre, hosting the 1500 participants that have registered for this year’s Global Media Forum. (Just as a side note: I was told by one of the organizers that 1500 will unfortunately not be the real number of participants. Numerous registrations from African countries were more of the fictive kind, since visas were only accorded to the very few.)

My first insightful encounter was with the people from U-Media, a Ukranian Internews project. Internews is an NGO fighting for the independence of information by empowering local media. As for U-Media, its goal is to develop a more robust media sector that works to serve the interests of independent media in the Ukraine.

U-Media staff explained how difficult it is to attain such a goal in country whose economy is about to fall. And yes, the good news is that bad media – as they call it – is disappearing. But the bulk of the biased media is not – it remains in the hands of oligarchs. As for the support of new media, it is very hard for U-Media to make its way through in a country with an internet penetration of only 22% (you can compare it to the 53.9% in the neighboring EU member country Romania.)

Like the USAID-sponsored Intermedia, the Thomson Foundation trains and supports journalists throughout the world. With the Thomson Foundation representative I discussed the case of, the New Delhi based news agency run by Burmese people in exile offering coverage on the country. A Deutsche Welle reporter for Hindi told us about his idea of India supporting Mizzima to establish a rebel radio for Burma.

Many ideas in the air, as you can see. Looking forward to the conference itself and to more encounters tomorrow.

Big State is Watching You

Police guard on the Kasr El Nil Bridge in Cairo.
Police guard on the Kasr El Nil Bridge in Cairo / photo: Cristina Viehmann

A new report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) tells us that Burma is the worst place in the world to be a blogger.

Next on the list of countries notorious for clever intimidation techniques are the Middle East and North Africa candidates: Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

I’ve just returned from Egypt, ranked 10th on the CPJ list. After my Cairo conversations with young journalists and artists, I also realized how difficult it still is to walk the thin line between the state and religious authorities in this country. Even with this, bloggers and internet artists dare to voice what they think.

Take Mohammed A. Fahmy for example, leader of the Ganzeer art project in Cairo. In his work he does not refrain from criticizing both the government and the societal or religious constraints ruling his country. Referring to a cover from a December 2004 Cairo youth magazine, illustrating the many “fine” inventions of Arab civilization, one of which is the “presidential monarchy,” I asked Mohammed: “How critical can you afford to be?”

“As critical as it gets,” he said.

Citizen journalism and artistic creation presuppose freedom of speech. Bloggers report, artists depict. Mohammed is one of those young critical voices that won’t be intimidated.

And yet, the role of intimidation remains strong in Egypt; in every aspect of life where opinions are to be voiced. A few fall prey to the oppressive state mechanisms: detention, hearings and weeks under state observation. These serve as warnings for all other critical voices out there.

As the CPJ report points out, in these countries it is enough to jail a few bloggers to intimidate the rest. It’s an oblation given for criticism and analysis to continue.

Yet even in these countries, censorship rules will not prevail. Technological advances are with the young and connected. Therefore, censors will lose the race.

In this article from the ISN Digital Library you can read how the new Arab media challenges the militaries. Also, you might want to check our Security Watch news stories, about the limits of Egypt’s cyberactivism, the Bahraini blogosphere and about how blogs and Internet forums debate political issues in Russia.