Burma is preparing a “second wave of reforms,” President Thein Sein said today, in an announcement reportedly “indicating no let-up in the country’s rapid economic overhaul.”
Following ethnic violence in northwest Myanmar that killed at least 50 people and displaced 30,000, he vowed to “continue to work on national reconciliation, national peace and stability and the rule of law, and the safety of the public”.
The government also announced that more political prisoners are to be released as early as next month, Democratic Voice of Burma reports. But reports of fresh Burmese army clashes with armed Shan groups, despite recent union-level ceasefire agreements with the government highlighted the fragility of the reform process.
The military-backed civilian government announced plans for partial privatization and a minimum wage in an apparent effort to ease the concerns of potential foreign investors.
“Western companies are holding back from investing in Myanmar, citing uncertainty over post-sanctions regulations in their home countries,” says the Financial Times. “US executives in particular complain of mixed signals from the Obama administration which, they say, is urging business to invest in Myanmar while warning of penalties should they break disclosure and licensing rules.”
The reforms may also signal a response to recent calls by opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for “socially responsible” investment and economic development.
“From this year onwards, we are working on a second wave of reforms which will focus especially on the development of the country and the public’s welfare,” said the former general, insisting that the government would “choose the type of investment that does not hurt the environment and social economy”.
The government vowed to triple gross domestic product per capita by fiscal 2015/16, Thein Sein said in a televised speech billed by official media as a “state of the union address” on his impoverished country’s reform process. An eagerly awaited foreign investment law would be enacted in the next parliamentary session, expected next month, while the government was also drafting laws on industrial zones and a minimum wage.
Thein Sein, whose quasi-civilian government replaced a military junta that he was a member of 15 months ago, spoke of reducing the state role in several important industries, including telecommunications, electricity, energy, forestry, education, health and “financial matters”.
“The privatization that is in the second wave of government reforms does not mean we are going to break them up and sell them,” he said. The president said the government’s budget alone would not be enough to achieve its goals and highlighted the need for more foreign help in terms of aid, grants, loans and expertise to reduce poverty and boost the economy.
“For a moment please don’t think too much of the benefit investment will bring to investors,” SuuKyi said. “We don’t want investment to mean further corruption… and greater inequality.”
Her comments and calls to energy companies to refrain from cooperation with state-owned MOGE caused a rift between Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein “and exposed their different priorities,” business risk assessors Maplecroft told The Irrawaddy.
“This comes as a reminder that the reform process continues thanks to a fragile balance of power, which has the potential to implode at any time. The reform process remains heavily dependent on two individuals—Suu Kyi and Thein Sein—and on successful cooperation between their support bases,” said Maplecroft’s senior Asia analyst, Giulia Zino.
A court in Myanmar today sentenced two men to death for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, an incident which sparked last month’s communal violence.
“Some civil society leaders, including the prominent comedian Zarganar (above), have expressed concern that people are using newfound freedoms to incite racial hatred, particularly online in social media,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
The woman’s death was followed by the June 3 lynching deaths of 10 Rohingyas, who were dragged off a bus by a Buddhist mob. The attacks helped set off almost a week of violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship and ethnic recognition in Myanmar and instead are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Thousands of homes were burned and 50 people were killed in the unrest, which has brought to the fore discrimination and hatred against the Rohingya and tested the stability of Myanmar’s reform-minded government, which was elected after nearly half a century of army rule.
The Obama administration today praised the government’s response to the violence.
“This is something we would not have seen in the past. The government is trying to help everybody who needs it whether that is Rakhine Buddhists or Muslims,” Michael Thurston, the U.S. embassy’s charge d’affaires in Myanmar, told Reuters in his office in Yangon.
The government declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in Rakhine state, dispatched security reinforcements, and the president made a televised address, warning that ethnic tension could undermine the reform process.
“The response this time is far and away better than Cyclone Nargis,” Thurston said. “It’s not just myself that thinks this. Most of my colleagues agree that this has been a very different and better response.”
Burma’s then-ruling generals were widely condemned for their tardy and callous reponse to the 2008 cyclone, which killed at least 138,000 people. But some civil society groups also find the current government’s reaction wanting.
“The response of government is still so slow and the help of the government has been weak since June 10,” said Khaing Kaung San, a member of local relief group Wan Latt Foundation, which operates camps for displaced people in Rakhine.
Visiting Europe this week, Suu Kyi declined to be drawn into the politically delicate issue of the rights and status of the minority Muslim Rohingya group.
“The most important lesson we need to draw from it is the need for the rule of law,” she said. “Without the rule of law, such communal strife will only continue.”
But the United Nations’ special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, showed no such reticence, warning that, “The underlying tensions that stem from discrimination against ethnic minorities pose a threat to Myanmar’s democratic transition and stability.”
Economic reform and ethnic violence will no doubt feature in this week’s discussion on the challenges and opportunities facing Burma’s reform process organized by Crown Agents USA Inc. and the Washington, D.C. Chapter Society for International Development Asia/Pacific Workgroup:
June 20, 2012. 9 a.m. – The Re-emergence of Burma: Challenges and Opportunities, with speakers Brian Joseph from the National Endowment for Democracy; Tristan Burton from Governance and Public Expenditure Management at Crown Angels; Keiichiro Nakazawa, chief representative for the U.S. Office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA); Nitin Madhav, officer in charge for Burma and China Programs at the U.S. Agency for International Development; Jack Andre of Nathan Associates Inc.; and Bill Hampton of SIL-International.
Venue: Crown Agents, 1129 20th Street NW, Suite 500, Washington, D.C.