Roundtable: Which way from here? Assessing the road ahead for Burma/Myanmar and ASEAN

Picture (Left to right):Dato' M.Redzuan Kushairi, Dato' Prof. Dr. Mohd Yusof Ahmad, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Jatswan S.Sidhu, Assoc. Prof. Dr. K. Nadaraja, Prof. Joern Dosch

KUALA LUMPUR, June 21: “This is your captain speaking. We have just landed in Yangon, Myanmar. Please put your watches back 50 years.” 

This pilot’s black humour, cruel perhaps, was quoted by one of the contributors to a recent Roundtable to draw attention to a “50-year dark period” in Myanmar.

Whereas many other states in Southeast Asia have seen considerable political and socio-economic advancement, far too many people in Myanmar have known no political system other than military rule, and no economic status other than poverty.

Organised by the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University, Sunway Campus, the June 19 Roundtable was entitled “Which Way From Here? Assessing the Road Ahead for Burma/Myanmar and Asean”. 

It brought together academics from several Malaysian universities, experienced practitioners, and members of the Burmese community. 

As one participant pointed out, the long period of political stalemate since the military usurped power in 1962 is one reason for the current “hype and enthusiasm” over the recent political moves in Myanmar. 

These had seen censorship laws relaxed, tentative economic reforms undertaken, and Aung San Suu Kyi allowed to take a seat in Parliament. 

Most commentary, only 18 months ago, was still steeped in gloom, so the mood swing was understandable. 

But “we have to do a reality check”, this participant continued. One of the military’s motivations for undertaking changes was a concern to retain a place in Burmese history in the future.

But the current Constitution, approved in 2008, essentially created a military-centred political system. 

Seven days after securing a landslide victory for its associate party in dubious elections in 2010, the military government released Suu Kyi.

“That, to me, was not reform, was not a change, but was a highly calculated strategic move… I certainly believe the shadow of [former strongman] Than Shwe still looms very strongly over the Burmese political horizon. He still holds the trump card,” said a participant.

Doubts persist 

A lack of transparency in the reform process means that doubts persisted among many participants as to whether its dominant stand was reform as such, or simply the perpetuation of military rule in another form. 

Some delegates were more optimistic about the possibilities for change, and pointed to its many positive consequences for the country and the region. 

Nevertheless, all agreed that the ghosts of the past were not going to retreat easily. 

It would not be possible to quickly undo the damage that has been done over such a long period. And the military mindset would be hard to change – a problem acutely evident to members of ethnic minority groups. 

To thrive and begin to prosper, Myanmar needed to provide assurances to these minorities, fulfil the requirements of good governance, and ensure sound institutions, the rule of law, and space for civil society in political dialogue. 

The country also needed to undertake a raft of economic reforms, which would be difficult without fundamental legislative change.

This was a tall order indeed. “They have so much catching up to do,” one participant pointed out, “and they really have to have these laws in place very, very quickly.” 

Critical, too, was the issue of education, one of the major casualties of the long-running military system. “The standard of education is a shadow of what it used to be,” the same observer noted.

This exacerbated basic economic problems: “There is such a high rate of unemployment and such a high rate of inflation that this has got to be the main task… One of the most urgent things is to provide people with jobs – and hope. You just cannot hope for democracy when you don’t have food, and you don’t have jobs.”

Participants also pointed out that the changes in Myanmar were happening in the context of other historic shifts. 

By accident or design, they coincided with a shift in the United States’ diplomacy – from a hard approach that did not appear to be breaking the will of the generals, to a softer approach that “looks like, and sounds like, but is not exactly the same as Asean’s constructive engagement”.

But the US policy change itself, another delegate observed, was at least partly motivated by its “return” to the region and its overriding concern with the influence of China. 

It remains to be seen whether the desire to counterbalance China would trump the desire to ensure real progress on political, economic, and social reforms and national reconciliation in Myanmar. 

Whether Myanmar can fast-forward 50 years, and take its rightful place as a strong and vibrant member of the Southeast Asian community, was still an open question. 

But vigilance would be needed on all fronts if its history was not to become its destiny. 

The Myanmar Roundtable was part of a wider programme of seminars and discussions on Southeast Asian political and cultural themes offered by the School of Arts and Social Sciences.