A new chapter opens in Myanmar

Mohammad Amjad Hossain

3 April, 2016 12:00 AM printer

A new chapter opens in Myanmar

A new chapter has begun in Myanmar (old Burma) in 25 years following holding of the free and fair general election in November, 2015 by army junta headed by retired Lt. Gen U Thein Sein. The country is in the midst of landmark transition to democracy from quasi military-civilian leadership for more than five decades.
The power has officially been transferred to newly elected President of National League for Democracy, U Htin Kyaw on March 30 by immediate past President retired Lt. Gen. U Thein Sein. In his speech the former President describes inauguration “represents a historic milestone in the country’s transition to a democratically elected civilian-led government. This extraordinary moment in Burma’s history is a testament to its people, institution and leaders who have worked together to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, and it speaks of significance of the reforms the country has undertaken since 2011.” It is true that some reforms were undertaken by the immediate past President of Myanmar under tremendous pressures from international communities spearheaded by Obama administration of the United States. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama paid a visit to Myanmar to press for political, social and economic reforms in Myanmar to become world citizen from pariah state. Former Myanmar President initiated releasing political prisoners, withdrawing restrictions from news media but anti-Muslim sentiment was high at any time in the recent past. Many thousands Muslim Rakhine left the country.

Unfortunately, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi did not speak against persecuted Muslim Rakhine in Myanmar at any stage. Now, she was confronted with BBC news reporter during her interview in Rangoon who asked question about persecuted Muslims in Myanmar. BBC presenter Mishal Husain requested Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn anti-Muslim sentiment and massacres of Muslims in Myanmar but she refused to do so. It is regrettable to note that Suu Kyi herself was persecuted by army junta for 15 years who remained in house arrest and was incommunicado. Incidentally, this writer received Aung San Suu kyi in 1982 sometimes in November  at the request of Bangladesh Ambassador to Burma Syed Najmuddin Hashim when she was passing through Dhaka airport to London to see her ailing husband. I find her very relaxed and quiet lady. However, she did not accept our hospitality because she was on transit to fly by British airline from Dhaka in an hour’s time.
While taking over power newly elected President U Htin Kyaw told the parliamentarians and people of Myanmar to “have patience in pursuit of full democracy.” “We have to work hard for a constitution that is in harmony with democratic values,” the president elect added. This is a political ambition that people have wanted for a long, long time. Along with him two Vice-Presidents and 18 cabinet ministers including Aung San Suu Kyi took oath of offices. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sworn in as Minister for education, energy, foreign affairs and advisor to presidential office. During handing over ceremony Chief of armed forces Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, among others, was present.
50 years of repressive rule by military junta have left the country decades behind most of its neighbours. As a result per capita income in Myanmar is around $915 a year in spite of drawing income from oil and gas by the government in power. Apart from inequality of income Myanmar is confronting in establishing identity of the state in particular. Since independence from United Kingdom in 1948, Burma had been challenged by communist and ethnic rebellions. When President  U Ne had made an attempt to make Buddhism as state religion in 1961 the efforts were backfired because ethnic groups decided to secede from Union of Burma.
Although army has succeeded to recover some lands from ethnic minorities still some areas at the border of China and Thailand are out of control of the administration. Out of total population in Myanmar there are more than 135 ethnic minorities. However, there are seven distinct ethnic minorities living side by side with Buddhists for long time. They are chin, the Kachin, the Rakhine, the Mon, the Karen and the Shan – each with its own history. It is expected that newly created ethnic ministry would take care of major problems of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
Myanmar is still at below poverty level in South East Asia as has been reflected in gross domestic product per capita which stands at $824.19 while she recorded trade deficit of $329.6o million. According to Asian Development Bank, 25.6 per cent of population lives below poverty level while 8.5 per cent live in rural areas. Severe floods and landslides in July and August of 2015 displaced 1.6 million people while damaged agriculture and infrastructures. Foreign direct investment, however, showed upward trend in 2015 following withdrawal of sanctions by United States and European Union. 35 per cent of foreign direct investment was generated by energy sector. This was possible because government of Myanmar have made reform in its investment laws. Therefore, economy is expanding on investment stimulated by structural reforms.
It is still far ahead to achieve success in economic and political arena unless drastic action is initiated in reforming constitution in terms of full democracy and accepting all ethnic minorities in the lap of Myanmar, apart from non- interfering in the administration by armed forces.

Mohammad Amjad Hossain, retired diplomat from Bangladesh, writes from Virginia