An air of great hope hangs over Myanmar following pro-democratic reforms announced in recent months by the country’s new set of rulers. And it further cleared in mid-February when the government of President Thein Sein allowed masses to congregate at Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda to celebrate the 2,600th year of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment. This was the first permitted public gathering at the pagoda in over 23 years.
Shwedagon had been used in the past as a rallying point for anti-government protesters and it was there, in 1988, that Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s iconic leader, addressing a crowd of half a million people, launched her pro-democracy crusade. Since then the pagoda had remained out of bounds for gatherings of more than five people at a time. When monks gathered there and at Sule, Myanmar’s other significant Buddhist shrine, and rose in what came to be known as the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the army crushed it with deadly force.
Although some monks are still in prison from those days, the political mood in the country received a noticeable lift when, in August 2011, President Thein Sein met with Suu Kyi and indicated a desire to strengthen the process of reconciliation. The process had begun nine months earlier when Suu Kyi was released, under tremendous international pressure, from almost eight years of house detention.
Thein Sein presides over a nominally-civilian government that came to power in March 2011 after nearly half a century of military rule and, so far, hasn’t done anything that could hold his intentions in question. Press censorship, once draconian, has been relaxed and a new media law is in the works. Suu Kyi is now free to run for Parliament and campaign. Most political prisoners have been released. To pacify the anger of Kachin tribals in the north, a controversial $3.6-billion, Chinese-backed hydropower project has been stopped in its tracks. Preliminary peace pacts have been signed with Kachin, Mon, Karen, and Shan rebels seeking to end a long-running civil war. For the first time in decades, political concerns and national interests are being publicly discussed. An independent think tank, Myanmar Development Resource Institute, has come into being to advise the government on political, economic, and legal affairs.
These are major developments in a country with a long tradition of repressive military rule, and more significantly, Suu Kyi herself is prepared to give reconciliation a chance in spite of being accused by some of her own supporters of double-crossing and turning into a Thein Sein publicist. “We have got to take risks and have the courage to face a future that is really not known to us,” she recently said.
Could things go wrong again, as they had in the past? They could, but a major turn-back seems highly unlikely. For one thing, Myanmar is due to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, and Asean has been a quiet but persistent influence on Myanmar to open up. For another, and perhaps more importantly, Cyclone Nargis of 2008 proved how hollow Myanmar’s economy had become and why the country must change course to get international sanctions off its back and the impoverished nation on its feet.
Everybody is now waiting to see how the upcoming April 1 by-elections for 48 parliamentary seats go, one of which Suu Kyi will contest. Meanwhile, business hunters are getting set to descend on Yangon with renewed hope. Singapore has offered help on manpower training. Japanese banks have discussed ways to develop financial infrastructure. The European Union has expressed its readiness to ease sanctions to make it easier for investors to do business in Myanmar. The US will review its stand after April 1 but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Myanmar last December, has already announced a partial waiver.
It’s the positive change in American attitude that businessmen find most encouraging. In a report published last month, New York-based Asia Society went to the extent of saying former generals, some of whom now occupy high positions in the government, “seem to have undergone a metamorphosis, becoming forward-leaning advocates of democracy, free enterprise, and the expansion of individual freedom”.
Big claim indeed and having made it, the report goes on to suggest a six-fold course of action for Washington and the international community. Its prescription includes an “urgent” reversal of “draconian” financial sanctions, and full empowerment of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to help Myanmar with macroeconomic reform and economic development strategy.
Of course, challenges remain but for the first time in more than half a century, hope is beginning to outweigh fears, raising the possibility that Myanmar, one of the most isolated countries in the world, may at last find an honourable place in the comity of nations.