Myanmar update

Events in Myanmar continue to move fast. This brief update highlights some of the key developments over the last few months. It follows the recent visit to Australia by the Speaker of Myanmar’s lower house and the historic visits to the United States by President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Political developments
  • the prospect of a ‘second wave’ of reforms was bolstered by the 27 August re-shuffle of Myanmar’s Cabinet, which included the promotion of several reform-minded Ministers and the departure or demotion of well-known conservatives, including the resignation of Vice-President U Tin Aung Oo.
  • meanwhile, the ongoing debate over constitutional reform was highlighted by the 6 September resignation of the country’s nine-member Constitutional Tribunal following a vote by Myanmar’s lower house to impeach them. Even the President publicly acknowledges the need for constitutional reform in order to clarify the relationship between the three branches of government, although this is being resisted for the time being by the military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the parliament. A report by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International studies (CSIS) notes that some reformers are actively looking to the Indonesia model, where the military gradually gave up its parliamentary role following the 1998 fall of President Suharto.
  • on 17 September, just prior to President Sein’s visit to the US, the Myanmar Government announced the release of more political prisoners, at least 58 according to opposition groups, as part of a broader prisoner release.  Opposition and human rights groups claim there were still around 300 political prisoners in Myanmar’s jails at the time of the release. This follows several rounds of prisoner releases in 2011–12 and the government’s decision, in late August 2012, to remove more than 2000 names from a list of individuals banned from entering the country. The latter announcement did not disclose the status of over 4000 other people who are still thought to be blacklisted.
  • Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently called on the Myanmar government to ensure that all political prisoners are immediately freed and for independent international monitors to have unhindered access to prisons to account for all remaining political prisoners. HRW has also criticised the arrest of 13 activists who led a peaceful demonstration in Yangon on 21 September.
  • censorship of the press has also been further relaxed.
Economic developments
  • the CSIS report points out that the only other country where political reforms led economic reforms was the former Soviet Union—‘this is not lost on officials and helps explain at least in part why they are so keen for foreign investment and other economic assistance’.
  • a July assessment by the International Crisis Group (ICG) highlights the close inter-relationship between Myanmar’s political and economic transition, particularly the need to generate quick impacts that make a difference to people’s lives if broader reforms are to be sustained.
  • in August, the Asian Development Bank released a comprehensive survey of Myanmar’s economic growth and poverty reduction prospects. The report argues that Myanmar’s economy could grow at a rate of 7–8 per cent and the country could reach middle-income status if it is able to ‘strategically plan its economic transition to take advantage of the growing power of emerging market economies, particularly the rise of Asia, including China, India, and ASEAN’.
  • a new Foreign Investment Law, passed by the Parliament on 7 September, does not include the full suite of protectionist measures reportedly mooted in earlier drafts, but still caps foreign investment in 13 sectors, including manufacturing and agriculture, at 50 per cent. The Law is yet to be approved by the President.
  • during her meetings with President Sein on 25 September, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, announced that the US would ease remaining sanctions on imports from Myanmar, a change supported by Suu Kyi. This would not apply to restrictions on the importation of precious stones like jade, which, under US law, require specific actions to occur prior to their lifting, such as the release of all political prisoners, and would necessitate an act of Congress to be changed.  The Congress has, however, passed a law that allows US representatives to institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to approve development financing for Myanmar.
Ethnic reconciliation
  • while ceasefires with other ethnic groups have largely held, conflict continues in northern Kachin state.  Estimates by the United Nations put the total number of displaced people in Kachin at over 62 000, including 24 000 in government-controlled areas and close to 40 000 in rebel-controlled areas.  More than 7000 displaced people are estimated to have fled across the border into China, where they face the risk of forcible return or trafficking.  Foreign Policy magazine has posted some rare photos from the conflict-affected areas.
  • the plight of the Rohingya in western Rakhine state continues to draw international attention and criticism. A HRW report, released in August, accuses the security forces of a failure to protect and of complicity in attacks against Rohingya populations, a charge denied by the government.  According to CSIS, with little support from either the government or the opposition parties, ‘it is hard to envision how this issue will be resolved in a way that preserves the rights of the Rohingya with Myanmar’. International journalists now appear, however, to have improved access to Rakhine, as demonstrated by recent reports in the Australian media.
  • as reconciliation with other groups progresses, a looming challenge for the government will be managing the return of ethnic minority refugees, including Karen living on the Thai border whose homes lie ‘in some of the most heavily mined areas on the planet’.
Australia–Myanmar relations
  • the Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, has welcomed the most recent release of political prisoners as ‘a further sign the leadership of Myanmar is serious in its efforts to move towards democracy’.
  • in June, the Australian Government conveyed its concerns to Myanmar authorities about the violence in Rakhine and has since committed emergency assistance to those affected.
  • the Australian Government continues to implement its commitment to increase development aid to Myanmar to $100 million a year by 2015, including through increased support for basic health and education services. A recent AusAID assessment highlights the need to address risks to aid effectiveness through improved donor coordination, the finalisation of a bilateral aid strategy, avoiding the fragmentation of aid activities, and implementing a more strategic approach to gender equality. The report also notes that the Australian Government is pursuing a formal bilateral development agreement with Myanmar and will establish a new liaison office in the capital, Nay Pyi Daw.
  • in a recent motion in the Senate, the Australian Greens called on the Government to seek from the Government of Myanmar the release of all remaining political prisoners and a lifting of any restrictions on all those already freed, the implementation of a nation-wide ceasefire, and the establishment of a comprehensive and inclusive political dialogue with opposition and ethnic groups.
  • in September, the Speaker of Myanmar’s lower house, Thura U Shwe Mann, led an official delegation to Australia, highlighting the growing cooperation between the two parliaments.  With national elections due in 2015, Shwe Mann is regarded as a possible future President.   


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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