Is Burma’s reform process under threat from a sheer lack of capacity and resources?
The regime has introduced economic reforms, relaxed media censorship, allowed independent labor unions, and released hundreds of political prisoners under its liberalization program.
But most of the 651 prisoners released of 10 days ago were petty criminals, not political detainees, say human rights groups. Only 274 were political prisoners, said Amnesty International, while the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners puts the figure at 299.
A democracy activist who suffered from physical and mental illness as result of torture during a decade in prison has died 10 days after being released, Democratic Voice of Burma reports:
Thet Nwe was among nearly 300 political prisoners released in the 13 January amnesty that drew widespread international praise of the Thein Sein administration and included high-profile dissidents such as Min Ko Naing and Ashin Gambira.
While the West’s democracies want to see reforms consolidated before lifting sanctions, “Myanmar’s reformers might not be able to do everything they want to do or that the international community is demanding of them,” according to this FT report:
A long-time expat businessman explains how a “tiny handful” of people are trying to make enormous changes on all fronts. “There are probably no more than 20 to 30 competent people in this government who can do this stuff – and they’re definitely not getting any sleep. They’re trying to negotiate with ethnic rebels, draw up everything from land reform to financial regulation and liaise with western organisations – while fighting a rearguard action from people who benefited from the status quo.”
Indeed, says an American aid worker, “there are a few who know how to run things and then there’s the rest, who’ve never been trained in anything, who sit around waiting for orders, who have come up in a bureaucratic dictatorship system where initiative is punished, not rewarded. And that’s the system supposedly overseeing this incredible change.”
Myanmar clearly lacks the institutions needed to support and deepen the democratisation process and implement planned reforms, warns Susanne Kempel, a European aid consultant. “Decades of neglect of the public sector, a poor education system and inadequate training of civil servants [have] created a void in capacity – which might just be the biggest obstacle to reform in the country.”
The prospect of “Burma burnout” is also a source of concern to democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose biggest worry is “that even those who want to reform are not quite sure how to go about it” she said. “There is so much to be done.”
“Activist lobbies located in the West or on the border have increasingly been claiming that it was their isolationist policies and the sanctions regime that have brought about these changes,” says the University of London’s Marie Lall. “But in fact it is in-country civil society organizations, both ethnic and Bamar [Burmese], which have worked tirelessly over the last five years to bring about the changes.”
She contends that “third force” activists like the recently deceased Dr Nay Win Maung “realized that it would be negotiations, not confrontation or revolution” which would secure a breakthrough:
Over five years they and other similar organizations started to educate and create change agents amongst the younger generations. The greatest success of some civil society groups has been to convince the new president and his men that this reform process is indeed in their interests, tapping into the acknowledgment by the military that their direct rule could not continue indefinitely. The opposition to the former regime remains deeply divided, but over Dr Nay Win Maung’s death many came together – even Aung San Suu Kyi came to pay her respects (right).