Burma watch: a time of frustration and worry

The casual visitor to Yangon today will see a burgeoning Asian city, seeking to compete with developed neighbours in China, India and Thailand. Beneath the surface, however, Myanmar is a land in deep crisis. As the countdown begins for the next general election in 2020, many challenges are looming for the National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The country’s future path looks far from certain.

Overshadowing the political landscape is the September report by the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, recommending that several leaders of the national armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, be considered for war crimes before the International Criminal Court. The evidence is stark: over 700,000 refugees, most of whom identify as Rohingya Muslims, who fled from the Rakhine State into Bangladesh last year following Tatmadaw “clearance” operations in response to attacks by a new Islamic force.

The number of casualties and displaced persons, however, is also increasing in northeast Myanmar, as Tatmadaw operations continue against ethnic Kachin, Kokang and Ta’ang organisations that do not have government ceasefires. As the UN investigators point out, there is a systemic dimension to human rights abuse in the country.

Against this backdrop, there was little reform progress at the third “21st Century Panglong Conference” in July, and during recent months hopes for nationwide peace and reform have been receding. In their defence, NLD officials say that the party’s room for independent manoeuvre is often limited, with the Tatmadaw continuing to dominate many aspects of government. This influence includes control of three ministries. But NLD leaders also came under criticism during September after two Reuters journalists received seven-year jail terms under state security laws for reporting military abuses in the Rakhine State. Citizens want to see the NLD abolish, not accommodate, restrictive laws and practices.

As this impasse continues, the key parties in national politics – the NLD, Tatmadaw and ethnic nationality groups – are focusing their attention on shoring up their positions before the next general election. In the absence of peace and reform, it is the economy and international relations that are becoming of heightened importance. Despite improvements in health indicators, many families are yet to see real progress in the quality of their lives. Equally striking, Western visitors and investors have shied away in the light of the Rohingya crisis. Western governments are leading the calls for international action.

In this vacuum, China is again taking a leading role within the country, with officials ambitiously pushing President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. A raft of major energy and infrastructure projects are planned to criss-cross Myanmar, opening China’s land and sea routes to south Asia. Modernity and investment are welcomed, but fears are growing that the country could swiftly become a dependency on its powerful neighbour. More than ever, peace and reform are needed among Myanmar’s peoples if the country is to face up to its many grave challenges on equal and solution-finding terms.