Ever since their ice-breaking meeting last year, President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have shown uncommon courage and pragmatism as they have moved cautiously, but in step, to reorient public attitudes and transform the political climate within Myanmar.
The government showed wisdom in allowing the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi to reenter the political sphere. In turn, “the Lady” was generous to agree to contest elections despite her reservations regarding the 2008 Constitution.
Though the April 1 by-elections covered less than 7 percent of the total seats in Parliament, they have now acquired a unique significance. The overwhelming support for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the N.L.D. has infused a new dynamism into Myanmar’s political landscape.
The presence of a real opposition party in Parliament provides possibilities of serious reform and political change. The mobilization of the people and civil society has provided hope and optimism that is palpable around the country, especially among the youth. Their reverberations are also likely to be felt at the periphery where ethnic groups have been in conflict with the government for over half a century.
In a conversation with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon some months ago in Bali, President Thein Sein described the road to reform his government was traversing as “so narrow that you cannot turn back.” This was an expression of determination, not helplessness; a recognition of the irreversibility of a process but also an admission of its fragility. Since then, the president has spoken forcefully of the need to bring together the “strong force” of a “new political generation for a mature democracy.”
Transition in the multiethnic context of Myanmar is likely to be complicated. It will require statesmanship and genuine accommodation from key domestic stakeholders. President Thein Sein, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of important ethnic groups in Myanmar must embody that spirit. The first tests will come as the new Parliament convenes this week.
During his brief visit to Myanmar later in the month, the secretary general will have four major concerns:
•First: to sustain the current pace of reform, and to ensure continued popular support, ordinary people must see quick improvements in their daily lives.
The international community can help — immediately — by lifting trade restrictions and other sanctions imposed over the years. Many of these measures have weighed more heavily on ordinary people than on their intended targets — the government, army or state industries. In a welcome development, the European Union on Monday voted to suspend economic sanctions for a year. Others are likely to soon follow suit.
•Second: Myanmar seeks to rejoin the global economy. To do so, it must catch up with its neighbors. This will require a substantial increase in international development assistance as well as foreign direct investment. Myanmar today receives roughly $7.50 in annual per capita assistance, compared to $68.71 for Laos and $51.67 for Cambodia.
Neighboring countries have experienced exponential growth in recent decades, even as they diversified their economic base. By contrast, Myanmar has vast natural wealth, including untapped deposits of oil, natural gas and rare minerals. It must develop these resources along with its emerging manufacturing and services industries. And it must do this within the context of modern rule of law and guarantees of good governance.
•Third: Myanmar has taken important steps toward reconciliation with rebel groups. Peace talks with the Karen people of southeastern Myanmar show particular promise, though Kachin State in the north remains tense.
There are serious concerns over how ceasefires will be transformed into a genuine peace process. Multiple actors and agendas need to coalesce into a reconciliation process that meets the basic concerns of all stakeholders. Issues like the resettlement and empowerment of displaced communities, better security guarantees for civilian populations, prisoner releases and monitoring mechanisms will have to be addressed in a uniform and equitable manner so that there is greater confidence between rebel groups and the government.
•Fourth: the process of political reform has just begun. A new discourse is needed to develop an inclusive political culture and democratic community based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, especially those of free association and free speech. There must be space for civil society to operate and protections for the rights of self-expression by ethnic minorities.
The establishment of a new National Human Rights Commission represents only the start of this process. More needs to be done to set up a sound basis for the emergence of an authentic national democratic unity.
During the secretary general’s visit, the United Nations will commit its support to all these efforts. Already plans are underway to help the government organize its first popular census in 31 years — a key benchmark for fair and effective democratic governance.
We will be looking at other ways the U.N. can contribute, from assisting Myanmar’s drug eradication efforts to clearing mines and drafting codes of corporate social responsibility.
As the international community views events in Myanmar with hope and expectation, the question should not be “can it hold?” It should be, “what can we do to help?”
Vijay Nambiar is special adviser to the United Nations secretary general on Myanmar.