Good to remove sanctions but Myanmar is not a full democracy yet: The Nation

The gold dome of Shwedagon pagoda, Myanma's Buddhist religious landmark is seen through a stretch of a road in Yangon.
The gold dome of Shwedagon pagoda, Myanma's Buddhist religious landmark is seen through a stretch of a road in Yangon.PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on Oct 11, the newspaper calls for caution among those optimistic about Yangon's progress

United States President Barack Obama last week (Oct 7) announced the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar, and it was the right decision, but the international community must realise that this is not the end of the story.

Myanmar does not yet have a functional democracy.

Obama said his decision was based on the progress Myanmar has made towards democracy, especially last November's historic election, which finally brought to power a civilian government, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In lifting its trade and economic sanctions imposed through its Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the US is not "rewarding" Suu Kyi for her decades of political struggle.

It is following the example of the European Union and allowing the local and international business community freer flow of goods and capital with which to build the Myanmar economy.

It's important to remember, though, that the Western sanctions levelled against Myanmar years ago when it was still in the grip of an abusive military regime were intended to force democratic reforms, and particularly respect for human rights.

 

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, had run Myanmar since 1962 and in the ensuing decades it crushed political uprisings, ignored election results and extinguished freedom of speech.

Only in its final years did the leadership in uniform recognise that reform was essential if the country was to avoid catastrophe. As a result of the military's long hold on power, however, authoritarianism remains entrenched in the civil service.

Neither the bureaucracy nor the military, which still controls a quarter of the seats in parliament, has any experience in democratic means of governing.

Basic rights will be a long time coming.

Even with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy in power, the Tatmadaw maintains its grip on events through a constitution it drafted itself in 2008, perhaps with an eye towards being unseated in inevitable elections.

That document gives the generals the authority to veto any proposals that come before parliament.

It barred Suu Kyi from assuming the presidency of the country, since her sons are foreigners, forcing her party to name Htin Kyaw as head of state, if by title only.

Multiple other clauses of the constitution also stand in the way of the country's democratisation.

In fact, the starkest sign that Washington is treading carefully as it removes sanctions is that State Department prohibitions on granting entry visas to any of Myanmar's military leaders have been kept in place.

 

The US evidently continues to hold the generals in contempt for their actions in the past, and perhaps for their continuing refusal to fully cede power.

Western nations are retaining such legal safeguards because they know Myanmar is teetering on a precipice, hounded by challenges.

The Htin Kya administration has just begun a long uphill battle in dealing with existing and anticipated problems.

Most notably, in the eyes of the international community, the current government has done nothing substantial to resolve a bloody conflict between "Buddhist" fundamentalists and Muslims such as the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi herself has objected to the use of the term "Rohingya", preferring to call them Bengalis, based on their ancestral homeland, an offensive practice designed to rationalise the refusal to grant them citizenship.

Nor is significant progress being made in ending the state's war on ethnic minority groups. A conference that opened last month on forging peace with armed ethnic groups suffers from the absence of some groups and lack of a firm commitment to peace from the Tatmadaw.

Giving Myanmar an economic leg-up is fine at this stage, but the world must be ready lest it fail to make good on democratic expectations.

* The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 newspapers.