Burmese Reality Check

The state of emergency in Rakhine State is a reminder of how far Burma still needs to go with its reforms.

Aung San Suu Kyi drew criticism last week when she warned the World Economic Forum against “reckless optimism” concerning Burma’s reform process. Some considered her remarks to be excessively negative, while others focused on alleged shortcomings in her management of her own political party, the National League for Democracy.

But already, Suu Kyi’s call for “healthy scepticism” towards the remaking of Burma has been completely vindicated. Foreign investors are right to see great potential in the country’s dormant economy, and in the court of international business opinion the main barriers to unlocking that potential are structural ones that can be removed through such measures as new investment laws and exchange rate reform.

This all overlooks the fact that Burma is still, stubbornly, at war with itself. Even worse, the wars are numerous.

A state of emergency now exists in Rakhine State, after a breakdown in relations between the region’s Buddhist and Muslim communities. Over the years, violence out in the provinces has normally been characterised as the oppression of ethnic minorities by the military, but this week’s crisis in Rakhine exposed a deep sectarian divide that financial reforms in Naypyidaw are not about to fix any time soon. Up to 100 people may already have died, though the full cost of the violence is still unknown. The Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) is now on hand to try to restore order. It is unclear which other group might have been able to fulfil this role, though the nature of Burma’s army has raised inevitable concerns that it might do more harm than good.

Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw certainly continues to do more harm than good in Kachin State, where it has recently deployed attack helicopters and other heavy weaponry to pound Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions. Both the Tatmadaw and the KIA have been blamed by Human Rights Watch for the suffering of the civilian population. The most recent bout of fighting in the long-running Kachin conflict has now been going on for a year, despite the more enlightened approach that the Thein Sein government has, at least in theory, adopted concerning reconciliation with minority groups.

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Thein Sein has been touted as a future Nobel Peace Prize winner. Talk of such accolades is extremely premature. First, he needs to bring the Tatmadaw to heel. Thein Sein was reported to have ordered a halt to the Kachin offensive several months ago: either he did no such thing, or his field commanders have chosen to ignore him. Neither scenario reflects well on the president. Is he complicit, or simply unwilling or unable to cross the military leadership?

The two crises are timely reminders that the damage done to Burma by fifty years of military misrule won’t be put right without far-reaching changes to the culture of Burmese government and society. Thein Sein has undeniably made an encouraging start in some areas, but, as we can see in Rakhine and Kachin, he’s yet to tackle his country’s most urgent problems.

Until he does, scepticism about the type of change he plans for Burma seems perfectly healthy.