Later this month, Myanmar will be hosting for the first time the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in its capital Nay Pyi Taw. World leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama will be attending, bringing with them some important messages, almost all of which will concern the progress of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
Obama last visited Myanmar in late 2012, during which he delivered an important speech at the University of Yangon: “I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed, and the will of the people can lift up this nation and set a great example for the world. And you will have in the United States of America a partner on that long journey.”
Myanmar very much needs the U.S. to be a partner on “that long journey” to genuine democratic change. Many challenges remain and there are some fundamental issues that Obama needs to raise at the Summit.
To begin with, Myanmar is to hold its first fully democratic general elections in late 2015. While there is reason to be confident that the elections will be free, whether they are fair remains to be seen. In particular, two key issues must be addressed urgently: Myanmar’s election commission needs to be reformed to include members from all major political parties, and voter education activities should be allowed on the ground. Neither reform can be immediately implemented, since parliament is still considering what electoral system the nation will adopt for the 2015 elections: first-past-the-post, proportional representation, or a hybrid.
Second, the peace process, which has been a bumpy road. There have been reports recently of renewed skirmishes between the Myanmar army and ethnic militants across the nation. Without peace, Myanmar’s democratization cannot succeed. Securing a lasting peace will require fundamental changes by both sides. For instance, the government needs to introduce structural changes that give ethnic communities real autonomy. The complex institutional relationship between the army and the new government will also need to be clarified, particularly the issue of civilian oversight.
The third challenge is communal violence. Myanmar is experiencing unprecedented communal violence against minorities, most notably its Muslim population. At least some of the violence is believed to be associated with a push to amend the controversial 2008 Constitution, especially Article 436, which requires 75 percent of parliament to approve any constitutional amendment. Whether troubles flares up again in the run-up to the 2015 elections remains to be seen.
Fourth, economic reform. The government must engage in effective land reform to benefit common citizens, and just not the elites. Poor farmers whose land has been seized by the army and the elites have little recourse. Since two thirds of Myanmar’s population are subsistence farmers, ineffective land reform could destabilize the nation, derailing the democratization process.
Given these challenges, what can Obama do for Myanmar? As a first step, the president should use the summit to urge world leaders to engage in the issues. For instance, Obama could ask international organizations like the World Bank to assist in land issues, which are crucial for poverty reduction. He could also warn Myanmar’s leaders of the possible consequences should the democratization process go off the rails.
Myanmar is changing, of that there is no doubt. But the path to democracy promises to be tricky. Obama and other world leaders should use the upcoming Summit to keep Myanmar on that path.
Aung Tun is an independent consultant for several development organizations in Myanmar and worked as a journalist for several years. He is involved in the electoral process, as an election monitor and political researcher.