Myanmar: How real is the change?
A section within the international community believes there has been a series of positive changes in every plausible field in Myanmar. Is the government in Myanmar finally having a change of heart? What are these changes and how far will they succeed in repairing Myanmar's reputation internationally? Will they bring any positive changes to the economy of the country? Are these changes just perception due to a freer media in Myanmar? Most importantly, will the people of Myanmar gain from these changes?
President Thein Sein, with his efforts to make Myanmar more liberal and bring much needed political and social reforms to the country, is now being seen as a catalyst for a brighter future. The new liberal policies are aimed at not only drawing out the country politically and socially, but also improving its situation economically. What are the economic developments?
An interesting development has been the acceptance of Myanmar's candidature for the Chair of ASEAN in 2014 by all member countries. This brings the hope for a new surge of liberal reforms in rejuvenating Myanmar's economy which is presently hanging on tenterhooks. A leadership role in a regional grouping which includes the two regional giants, India and China, can be a big plus for Myanmar's foreign policy as well.
Myanmar's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is almost US$ 43 billion, and is growing at the rate of 2.9 per cent. This is the lowest growth rate in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region and in sharp contrast to its post independence prospects when Myanmar was the largest rice exporter in the world and produced 75 per cent of the world's total teak production. Myanmar's economy started dwindling after the military takeover by Gen Ne Win in 1962 and his subsequent policy of 'Burmanization' which led to a near-closed economy.
However, in recent months, there has been an upward swing in Myanmar's overall economic situation with its currency, the Kyat, becoming 25 per cent stronger due to capital inflows since the beginning of 2010. It is likely to become even stronger with the relaxation of economic restrictions on the country in the coming few months. Foreign investments to the country have also increased substantially since 2009, and with more trading partners and less trade restrictions to and from Myanmar, commerce is expected to improve.
Moreover, President Sein's government has been taking steps to reach a compromise on the decades-long ethnic conflict in the most mineral and natural resource-rich areas of the country. This signals the coming of a better security environment for protection of vital investment establishments.
A sign of better economic conditions and banking reforms can also be judged by the installation of modern ATMs in the cities of the country at a rapid pace. Also, under the incumbent government, Myanmar's factory workers can now form unions. This is the first time that such an allowance has been made to them since 1962 and has been widely welcomed. This would give them a chance to liaise with the senior management of the industries and put forward their demands, thereby assisting in the improvement of their wage structure and standard of living.
Freedom of speech and expression?
On the freedom of speech and expression, there are indications of a freer media. In fact, Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to President Thein Sein, was quoted in a Reuters article saying that a new media law is in the making which will replace the indiscriminate censoring of every "song, book, cartoon and planned piece of art." He further added that the new law will "reflect guaranteed freedom of expression, so, no censorship", but, there will be a more open monitoring system in place for censoring objectionable cultural and religious matter.
Restrictions on some important news websites and channels have also been lifted, which were banned in 2007 at the time of the Buddhist monks' protests in Yangon. Even parliamentary proceedings are now being recorded and some portions are being aired on the national network.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself hosted a film festival in Yangon, titled 'Films of Freedom' and was interviewed by a leading business magazine which was carried as a two-page special. It was not censored much and was widely circulated. The government has also set up a Human Rights Commission, and the parliament has approved a law giving people the right to protest in a controlled environment.
The positive attitude of the civilian government in Myanmar appears to be the harbinger of political, social and economic uplift, and there is sufficient optimism to see these developments as credible because they are being initiated from within the country. Myanmar's media is opening up, giving way to more detailed reports emerging from even the frontier regions. As a result, the international community is able to see and analyze the developing situation in Myanmar more accurately. With the economy also looking up, the country's prospects may be improving. The isolation that Myanmar has faced for decades may be on its way out, giving way to the hope for a stable, democratic system.
The writer is a Research Officer, IPCS.
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