Burma watch – a time of opportunity and caution

With the advent to government of the National League for Democracy in March, hoeps are rising that the country could be entering the most progressive period in national politics in many decades. Given the scale of repression in the past, it is important to acknowledge how far the socio-political landscape has changed during the past five years so that a better future could finally be in view. Certainly, the NLD enjoys enormous good-will, both in Burma and abroad as the party embarks on the essential tasks of achieving national peace and reform.

The road ahead, however, will not be easy. A legacy of grave challenges remains to be addressed after half a century of military rule. The national armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, still control three ministries and a quarter of seats in the legislatures; armed conflict continues in several ethnic borderlands; and land-grabbing and natural resource exploitation are still prevalent in an economy dominated by powerful interest and a crony elite. Despite its abundant potential, Burma is ranked at a poor 148th of 188 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index and 147th of 168 countries on the Corruption Index of Transparency International.

Faced with these daunting realities, the NLD has made a cautious start. During the first 100 days in office, Aung San Suu Kyi and the party leaders have concentrated on three priorities: establishing the NLD in government; improving relations with the Tatmadaw generals; and announcing a “Panglong for the 21st Century Conference” to promote nationwide peace in the country.

A lack of political definition in these moves has caused concern among some supporters that the NLD may be compromising on more radical reforms. An escalation of fighting in the Kachin and Shan states, as well as continued Buddhist-Muslim tensions, have also raised questions about how the NLD intends to resolve such corrosive divisions in politics and society. But NLD officials assert that it has first been essential to consolidate a stable transition in national government before moving on to more detailed plans.

The stage is now delicately set. During the five-year life of the new parliament, the NLD has an ambitious list of goals. These include amendments, peace-building, refugee resettlement and essential reformsin the long-neglected fields of education, health, economics and the environment. New crisis points may well occur. But, for the moment, the political focus is on the positive, and citizens across the country are trusting that finally a democratic future is in prospect after so many detrimental years of impasse and malaise. Martin Smith