Myanmar president Thein Sein was received at the White House this week, marking the first time in 47 years a leader of the Southeast Asian country has made an official visit to the United States. US-based observers are understandably confused about Myanmar's military-guided path towards democratization, particularly after the recent eruption of communal violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities that ultimately required army intervention. As Thein Sein toured Washington, many have asked what is wrong with Myanmar's reform process?
Democratization in Myanmar has completed one phase and has entered another. The first was the initial transformation from nearly six decades of brutal military rule towards a "discipline-flourishing
democracy", a term coined by the previous military regime to describe the quasi-civilian form of government it established after relinquishing power in March 2011.
More recently, the transition from discipline-flourishing democracy to genuine democracy has begun, as civil society and other grassroots groups become more involved in policy and law-making processes.
So what exactly do the former generals have in mind with "discipline-flourishing democracy"? Simply put, it is a near equivalent to the term "illiberal democracy" coined by US journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria.
In Myanmar's democracy, the constitution guarantees that 25% of the total seats in parliament are reserved for the military without electoral challenge. To underscore the point, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing said openly in his Armed Forces Day's speech on March 27 while sitting alongside pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi that the military will absolutely retain a role in politics.
Despite these illiberal features, Thein Sein's administration has been widely lauded, including by President Barack Obama, for moving forward reforms. In November 2012, Obama made the first visit by a sitting US president to Myanmar, where he gave a well-received speech at Yangon University attended by local civil society organizations.
He also met separately with opposition leader Suu Kyi, who under the previous regime spent 15 of 21 years under house arrest. Obama commended the new government, opposition and activists for moving democracy forward and even urged the pariah state North Korea to follow Myanmar's lead.
Myanmar's transition to "discipline-flourishing democracy" has resulted in several positive upshots: hundreds of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, have been released; extensive media censorship has been abolished; separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary has been established; and peace talks with armed ethnic groups, albeit on a limited scale, have been undertaken.
Now, Thein Sein needs to push forward his multi-faceted peace agenda to consolidate these gains in the next phase of democratization. The first peace must transform the various ceasefires his government has brokered into permanent political solutions coupled with security sector reform. Without amendments to the 2008 constitution that removes the military from civilian politics and the workings of the economy, a genuine and lasting peace will be difficult to achieve.
Apart from the ongoing Kachin conflict in the far north of the country, there is reportedly fresh fighting between the Myanmar military and Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) ethnic army in the northeast, even as peace talks are underway. There are also rising concerns that the military will launch a new offensive, perhaps after this rainy season, against the heavily armed United Wa State Army (UWSA), the world's largest narco-trafficking militia. There have been reports that the UWSA has recently received arms and equipment from China, including missile-equipped helicopters.
The second peace concerns recent communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Until now, nobody knows exactly who is behind the violence, which has erupted on several occasions during the democratic transition.
After violence exploded in the central town of Meikhtila in late March, leaving over 40 people dead and hundreds of Muslim homes and shops razed, Thein Sein said those behind the violence were "religious extremists and political radicals". He would not identify those involved or offer a solution to prevent the anti-Muslim violence from spreading to other areas of the country.
Many Muslims believe the violence is political rather than religious. There is certainly a pattern behind the violence: whenever a small argument or incident occurs between Muslim and Buddhists, timely mobs descend upon Muslim communities near the initial confrontation and set fires, prompting even more deadly violence.
The "969" campaign against Muslim minorities, endorsed by some Buddhist monks, has exacerbated the violence, even though the movement should have easily been controlled by authorities. International observers have said that police stood by without taking action, prompting the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar to claim "state involvement" in the violence.
The third peace needs to address wide and yawning social inequality. Myanmar cannot make a genuine democratic transition without wide-reaching economic reforms. This includes the pressing need to address rampant land grabbing by the military and their business cronies, as well as the establishment of basic welfare policies. Myanmar has an estimated 85,000 villages and almost all exist under the poverty line. These villages represent approximately two-thirds of the country's total population of 60 million.
Throughout the country, poor farmers have taken to the streets to demand a return of their unlawfully seized lands back. So far, however, the government has not undertaken an effective or realistic land reform process. In response, some leading political activists such as Nay Myo Wai from the Peace and Diversity Political Party have begun the fight against cronyism on behalf of poor farmers.
Proposed welfare policies included in government poverty reduction programs will likely fail until the land confiscation issue is resolved. Civil unrest and outbreaks of violence will likely continue and intensify in the wake of this failure.
If Myanmar's political and economic reforms are to endure, Thein Sein will need to make quick and meaningful progress on these three crucial fronts. While Obama's praise of the nascent transition has been welcomed in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, the US can play a key role in crucial security sector reform through renewed military-to-military ties - assuming the current military leadership has a desire to professionalize and leave behind its governing role.
The US could also provide badly needed technical assistance, including grants to strengthen governmental institutions that remain mired in the old military system of corruption and red tape.
From a wider strategic perspective, the time is ripe for Washington to engage Myanmar and in the process counter China. Beijing has held economic and political sway in Myanmar for several decades, a penetration of influence that has made both Myanmar leaders and citizens uneasy.
As Thein Sein faces the next tough phase of democratic reforms, he will need all the outside support he can get. While the symbolic exchange of state visits and the suspension of economic sanctions have brought the US and Myanmar closer together, there are still miles to go before Myanmar can honestly claim to be a functioning and durable democracy.
Aung Tun has worked as a journalist inside Myanmar for several years. He is currently based in Boston.
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