Burma’s reform process appears on track after a government reshuffle and the suspension of a notorious blacklist that prevented some 2,000 dissidents and journalists from entering the country. But observers caution that hard liners’ continuing influence is evident in protectionist clauses injected into a new foreign investment law likely to benefit military-linked ‘crony capitalists.’
The developments coincide with news that Burmese democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will shortly visit Washington for a Capitol Hill tribute to several leading activists who will receive the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2012 Democracy Award honoring the Democracy Movement of Burma.
Most exiled dissidents welcomed the suspension of the blacklist although some believe they are still blocked from returning home.
“Previously I was worried,” said Aung Thu Nyein, a senior associate at the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute which was founded by dissident students. “I thought someone might follow me or I may face physical or psychological threat but it was not the case.”
Soe Aung, a Thailand-based analyst at the Forum for Democracy in Burma, doesn’t know if he is one of the 2,082 activists taken off the list, but he is “100% sure” he was on it.
“There is no clear indication how you can find out,” he said. “This is another attempt to avoid declaring a general amnesty as any democratic government would do when they come to power,” he told the Wall Street Journal:
Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based political analyst who follows Myanmar, said he assumes he has been removed from the list, as he has been shuttling back and forth to the country this year after staying away for years because of his past as a student activist, which included participating in 1988 protests that were crushed by the former military regime. He, like many other former student activists, is encouraged by the recent reforms in Myanmar, and some are helping advise Naypyitaw on how to manage the rapid changes in the country.
“It is encouraging to learn some names are removed, but there needs to be transparency, to know whose names are on the list, whose names are being removed,” says Cheery Zahau, a human rights activist from Chin state:
More than 4,083 people are still blacklisted, according to the state newspaper The New Light of Myanmar, and there is not yet a published list of names of those who can return to Myanmar and those who are still barred. Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein (above), has beckoned Myanmar exiles and economic migrants to return home, citing not only political reforms such as the freeing of political prisoners, but the need to reverse a debilitating brain drain in the long isolated country, which is among the poorest in Asia.
This week’s reshuffle promoted known reformists at the expense of ministers known to be resistant to recent changes is a clear sign of the president’s commitment to the process, said Burma watcher Larry Jagan.
“There’s no doubt, particularly with this cabinet reshuffle, that Thein Sein is committed to a reform process,” he said.
“He is very anxious to change things quite dramatically in Burma as quickly as possible, but he has been hampered by the lack of capacity, the lack of effective ministers, the lack of effective civil servants, and by hardliners who have opposed his reform process. ….I think now he is in a position to push forward.”
The reshuffle shines a little light onto the normally opaque internal shifts within the ruling elite, said Jan Zalewski, an analyst for IHS Global Insight, although it remained “extremely difficult to know what is really going on, and whether there are other motives behind the reshuffle.”
Nevertheless, the reshuffle was “very likely to have strengthened Thein Sein’s position in the government.”
“This bodes well for the longevity of reforms that have already been undertaken, and those that are yet to come,” he said.
But as Thein Sein consolidates his position, the reshuffle’s timing may also be a sign of his vulnerability, Irrawaddy reports.
“He is doing this to deflect attention from the problems he’s facing,” said Jagan, noting that the government has come under fire for its handling of the recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State and other issues.
“Many of the changes and additions are in the key economic ministries, a reflection of the president’s focus on getting the economy into some kind of shape after decades of mismanagement,” historian Thant Myint-U told the New York Times.
Three of Mr. Thein Sein’s top lieutenants have been transferred to the office of the president. Among them is the railways minister, Aung Min, who has led peace negotiations with the country’s alienated minority groups. Those efforts, which are crucial to keeping the country intact, have met with mixed success. Many ethnic groups have signed tenuous cease-fire agreements in recent months. But the government has failed to come to terms with one major ethnic group, the Kachin, who continue to engage in clashes with the army, fighting that has displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
The other two transferred to the president’s office are the minister of national planning and economic development, U Tin Naing Thein, and the minister of industry, U Soe Thein, who has led efforts to attract foreign investment and set up special economic zones. The centralization of these economic specialists comes as a crucial law on foreign investment is being considered in Parliament. Officials are debating what kind of incentives to offer foreign companies — and how much protection to afford local companies from foreign competition.
But foreign firms are likely to be disadvantaged by protectionist clauses introduced by the parliament, known to be a redoubt of hard line conservative factions, Reuters reports:
Two sources with direct knowledge of the law say President Thein Sein wants to make it attractive to foreign investors and his office has been working behind the scenes to convince lawmakers to ease restrictions introduced by parliament, which could approve the draft this week. The law, crucial to foreign investment in one of Asia’s last frontier markets, has been stuck in Myanmar’s bicameral parliament for five months. Sources involved in the issue say 94 changes have been recently introduced, ostensibly to help domestic small and medium-sized enterprises compete.
New requirements for as much as $8 million in start-up capital and barriers for foreign joint ventures in 13 restricted sectors could ultimately force some foreign firms to reconsider investing in Myanmar, say officials with ties to the president.
“It will just benefit a handful of the businessmen who had already made a fortune,” said a senior industry official with close knowledge of the drafting process, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“Instead of moving to a more liberal economic environment, some within the country seem to be pushing towards an outcome that could see the effective ‘oligarchisation’ of Burma’s economy,” said Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma’s economy at Australia’s Macquarie University:
[He] said the draft’s changes represented a backlash to the reform process by entrenched vested interests, which had prevailed in some other post-transition countries.
Aung San Suu Kyi will be among those present to pay tribute to five leading activists from Burma who will accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) 2012 Democracy Award honoring the Democracy Movement of Burma. The activists have endured prison and torture, and in some cases exile, in their efforts to secure freedom and democracy for the people of Burma. The award presentation will take place in the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 20.
“For nearly a quarter century, the people of Burma have been fighting for democracy against great odds,” said NED President Carl Gershman. “Many thousands have died. Yet despite the harshest repression, a broad and resilient democratic movement has survived and grown, capturing the imagination of people throughout the world. Aung San Suu Kyi is the iconic leader of this movement, but beside her are many unsung heroes, brave people who have risked everything to advance their shared goal of a democratic Burma. With this award, we honor them all.”
The five recipients who will accept the 2012 Democracy Award on behalf of the Democracy Movement of Burma are:
Min Ko Naing, a key leader of both the 1988 student movement and the 2007 Saffron Revolution, has spent most of the past 20 years as a political prisoner in solitary confinement, until his release this January.
Hkun Htun Oo, released from prison this January, is the chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and is known for his struggle for democracy and national reconciliation among Burma’s many ethnic groups.
Kyaw Thu is a famous film director and actor turned activist who heads one of the country’s most important civil society organizations, the Free Funeral Service Society.
Dr. Cynthia Maung is an ethnic Karen medical doctor who has for more than twenty years operated a health clinic for displaced people on the Thai-Burma Border.
Aung Din was a leader of the 1988 student movement and a former political prisoner who is co-founder and executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
Full bios and event details are available on the NED website here.
In addition to Aung San Suu Kyi, confirmed speakers include NED Chairman Richard Gephardt, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY).
The award presentation will take place in the U.S. Capitol in Room HC-5 from 3:00 – 4:00 p.m. and is by invitation only.
This event is open to the media. Interested journalists should contact Jane Riley Jacobsen: email@example.com or 202-378-9700.
The National Endowment for Democracy is a private, nonprofit, bipartisan foundation created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world. It is active in more than 90 countries, supporting grassroots, democratic initiatives. More information about NED can be found at www.ned.org.