Are Myanmar’s reforms stalled?

Author: Trevor Wilson, ANU

Myanmar’s initial reforms beginning in March 2011 were dramatic and surprised everyone, but they are still incomplete and not always operating well. Many problem areas have not yet undergone reform (such as land reforms, judicial system reform, and ending human rights abuses), meaning that much ‘unfinished business’ remains. But this does not mean that Myanmar’s reform process has stalled.

Myanmar worker carries two baskets loaded with gravel on his shoulders as he unloads a boat to a jetty of Yangon River, Yangon, Myanmar, 27 January 2015. (Photo:AAP).

Reports that Aung San Suu Kyi was concerned by perceived Myanmar Government ‘backtracking’ on reforms and lack of further progress on reforms have been circulating for several months. These concerns were, not surprisingly, picked up by international activist groups where high expectations of Myanmar’s reform process were not always realistic. But in a 5 November press conference, Aung San Suu Kyi said she was not concerned by any ‘backtracking’ as such. As a political statement, what Suu Kyi said about Myanmar’s ‘stalled’ reform process was not unexpected.

The pace of reform in Myanmar has certainly slowed, but whether or not this is the result of a reduced commitment to reform calls for a considered, not just a politically oriented, assessment. To say that nothing much in the way of major reform happened during 2013–14 is not accurate. To give just one example, from 1 April 2013, private daily newspapers were authorised for the first time since 1964, and from the outset they operated without direct censorship under the press freedom reforms put in place under the Thein Sein Government. Aung San Suu Kyi’s 5 November 2014 press conference was reported in these very newspapers.

A large number of new long-term government reform plans were developed during 2013 and 2014 — although most did not call for immediate new policy changes. This period coincided with the return to Myanmar for the first time in more than two decades of the leading international financial institutions, and the ‘normalisation’ of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) work in Myanmar, whose basic operations demanded high standards of nation-wide planning. These new long-term plans included: the ‘first’ Five-Year Plan (2011–16); the long-term National Comprehensive Development Plan (2011–31); the Myanmar National Spatial Development Plan containing goals for urban development; the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan (2013–20); the National Strategic Plan for Women Advancement (2013–22); and the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (2014–20).

During 2012–14, the Thein Sein government also for the first time negotiated on behalf of Myanmar several entirely new, substantive long-term programs with the UN and other international agencies which, under sanctions, had previously been prevented from funding normal programs in Myanmar.

These new long-term programs target substantial institutional and infrastructure gaps, including the ‘Myanmar – Unlocking the Potential: Country Diagnostic Study’ with the Asian Development Bank; a comprehensive ‘Democratic Governance’ program with the UNDP, covering a number of specific rule of law reform programs; and an Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management Project with the World Bank, to name but a few. During 2013–14 alone, the World Bank agreed to fund several hundreds of million dollars of projects for Myanmar’s public health services, telecommunications reforms, public sector financial management, decentralisation of education funding for schools and students, capacity enhancement and institutional strengthening in the electric power generation. These are multi-year national projects none of which end until 2018–19.

These plans and programs might not contain all the reforms that are needed in Myanmar, but they were prepared in thorough and more inclusive processes than Myanmar has ever experienced before.

Properly funded and supported, these plans and programs will become some of the key vehicles for future reforms. Indeed, having the international agencies acting as the main implementers could even be a way of preserving the integrity and quality of reforms needed. Not that the UN system always achieves that.

The National League for Democracy participated in many of the consultation processes on these plans and programs, either through Aung San Suu Kyi herself, or via the parliament in which they held seats after April 2012, or through the normal consultations that were conducted in every case. While exactly how much impact the NLD was actually able to have on debates in parliament about specific laws and reforms during 2012–14 is a question, opposition disaffection with the process has not been a deal-breaker so far.

Some significant political reforms were also initiated in the period 2012–14. Negotiations with all insurgent and ethnic groups were begun under a ‘Myanmar Peace Initiative’, launched in March 2012; a large number of political prisoners were released, many of whom have resumed political activity quite prominently, and the former military regime’s ‘black list’ of banned persons was abolished in August 2012.

More recently, on 18 October 2014 one of the most important policy reforms was released in draft form, the much-awaited Draft National Land Use Policy. Most importantly, in terms of political reconciliation between the authorities and the opposition, the informal ‘understanding’ between President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi survived. Evidence of this can be found in the first ever modern-day political leaders’ meeting with the Burmese Army leadership, convened by President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw on 31 October 2014.

While some reforms are undoubtedly not working as well as they should, or even as intended, reforms already undertaken have not simply been ‘cosmetic’ or ‘symbolic’. They are reforms that are helping to change once and for all the constricting mindset of the last 50 years in Myanmar.

Trevor Wilson is Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political & Social Change, College of Asia & the Pacific, The Australian National University.