On a state visit to Singapore with a delegation of ministers and businesspeople earlier this week, Burmese President Thein Sein made his most explicit commitment to democratic reform and an overhaul of the country’s moribund economy and government infrastructure.
“We want democracy to thrive. I wish to assure you that I shall endeavor to establish a healthy democracy in Myanmar,” he said, referring to the country by its alternate name. “We want a brighter future for our people.” He asked the international community to support Burma’s reform path, noting that the transition is fraught with challenges.
Singapore, whose government-linked companies as well as private ones have invested heavily for years in Burma, obviously intends to play a major role in the country’s development. Thein Sein was in the island republic to sign a Singapore-Burma Technical Cooperation Agreement to cover technical assistance and training for the legal, banking, finance, trade, tourism and urban planning sectors.
Singapore will also provide English-language, technical and vocational education in an effort to help Burma emerge from decades of isolation and under-investment in manpower.
All through 2011, Burma took measures to release political prisoners, legalize its main opposition party and relax controls on media. These are all part of a package of reforms known as the “road map to democracy.” Skeptics are beginning to hope that this time it is real.
A top Burmese Information Ministry official recently said that he was enthusiastic about the pace of reform, saying that the country’s overhaul of human rights and the democratic process could well leave the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) behind. The official cited Singapore and Malaysia as questioning—half in jest—why the country was in such a hurry.
As has been widely reported, Aung San Suu Kyi has re-registered her National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD expects to contest April 1 by-elections for 48 seats that fell vacant when lawmakers were elevated to ministerial positions. Of the 48, 40 are for the 420-strong lower house, six for the upper house and two for regional assemblies.
While the number of constituencies the NLD is contesting seems small, it does set an important marker for representative democracy.
When queried about the wisdom of participating in a political framework defined by the military and stacked with regime proxies, the 66-year old Nobel Peace Price laureate was amazingly upbeat.
“Elements in the government genuinely desire reform ... if we wait only for solid guarantees, we can never proceed,” she told reporters. “We have to take risks. We need the courage to face a future that is really not known to us.”
Even if the NLD wins all the 40 lower house seats it contests in April, it would still barely wield 9.5 percent of the influence in Parliament. Suu Kyi’s sharp challenge to the recently cobbled Constitution may seem quixotic, but she carries disproportionate moral authority within the country and internationally. If and when she gets into Parliament, she would be the voice of the people despite the tiny share of the seats that is projected. Some say the president may offer her a senior government role.
On her first campaign tour to the coastal region of Tavoy (also known as Dawei), 615 km south of Rangoon last Sunday, Suu Kyi called for changes to the Constitution, which was put together to ensure the power of the military. The document reserves 25 percent of seats for the military, allows it to appoint cabinet ministers, to unilaterally declare a state of emergency and run many critical government functions.
Tavoy is where environmental activists protested successfully against the construction of a 4,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant that the president surprisingly canceled. Another 400 megawatt power plant is still on the drawing board as the region has been designated for major industrial projects including a deep-sea port, steel mill and petrochemical plant. Infrastructure of railways and highways are also planned to connect to Thailand.
“There are certain laws that are obstacles to the freedom of the people. We will strive to abolish these laws within the framework of parliament,” Suu Kyi told reporters. She has also called for transparency and accountability of government and wants an end to the military harassment of ethnic minorities.
The internal warring in Burma since 1948 has drained government finances, diverting budgets to military spending without resolution.
It has also led to abuses in the field and increasing disaffection among minorities. The alienation has allowed warlords in the provinces to build their own private armies to resist government forces and give cover for smuggling of timber, gemstones and heroin.