Interview by: Andrew Parker, Program Associate, PISA
Edited by: Suzanne Kelly-Lyall, Deputy Director, PISA
This week PisaSpeak brings you another snap shot of the political and economic reforms underway in Burma. Dr. Christina Fink (pictured second from right), Professor of Development and International Affairs, George Washington Univeristy, is the author of Living Silence Burma Surviving Military – as a colleague in Yangon recently commented; Dr. Fink is the “go to” source if you want to understand the complex political landscape in Burma.”
The last time you were in Myanmar was over 15 years ago. During your most recent visit what changes were most striking? Is there an image you can share that sums up these changes?
“The blanket of fear has lifted to a large extent, at least in Yangon…”
– What struck me most was the sparkle in people’s eyes, the openness in their faces, and the buoyancy in their voices at least in Yangon. There is a sense of possibility, a sense that the country may finally have an opportunity to live up to its potential. While the military and former military leaders still have a leading role in politics, the new system of government distributes power between various institutions and requires elections for the majority of the members of parliament, with the parliament electing the president.
“The government has become more responsive to citizens’ needs and more receptive to the idea of allowing civil society, private enterprise, and the media to develop independently.”
What is your take on the current political reforms taking place in Myanmar and where do you see it in five to ten years?
-The former military generals who are promoting political and economic reform are eager to see the country move forward and be on a par with other countries in the region. However, the 2015 national elections will be a real test of the extent to which high-ranking former and current military officers are willing to permit free and fair campaigning and voting. If the elections are truly fair, the balance of power could shift significantly, with parties such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracygaining a large number of seats in parliament. At the same time, efforts must continue to be made to engage with the current military leaders so that they too initiate reforms within the military and support the institutionalization of a more open and inclusive political system.
How will Myanmar’s different ethnic communities be affected by the development that is likely to take place in the coming years?
– At the time of independence in 1948, a federal union was established. However,the non-Burman ethnic nationalities felt dissatisfied with the central government, which did not permit the ethnic states to exercise their full rights, and many took up arms. Today ceasefires between the national army and the ethnic armed groups have been negotiated in many parts of the country, but fighting continues in some areas. If trust can be built and sufficient autonomy ensured, then Myanmar’s ethnic communities will be in a position to benefit from the country’s political and economic reforms. The ethnic states are rich in natural resources and likely to attract large numbers of tourists. Roads, railroads, and pipelines are slated to pass through many of the ethnic states linking Myanmar to its neighbors. All of these developments can potentially bring prosperity to the ethnic communities, if land rights are respected and decision-making and revenues are shared between the central, regional, and local governments.
“How the various ethnic communities will be affected depends on whether genuine peace is achieved in the ethnic states.”
How should Myanmar mitigate risks to human security posed by economic development and environmental disasters?
“While the president’s office has announced a number of progressive policy initiatives and the parliament (particularly the lower house) has sought to play a dynamic role in policy development, little movement has taken place in the judiciary, which continues to operate under the authority of the executive branch.”
Land confiscation and land grabbing are areas of critical concern, as are workers’ rights. Citizens need to be able to bring cases to court and feel confident that the rule of law will prevail. Currently, there is great pressure to push through new investment and land laws quickly to spur economic development, but policymakers and legislators must carefully consider whether they will provide sufficient protection for ordinary citizens’ rights. In the past few years, the media and civil society have made great efforts to expose threats to human security and to propose policy alternatives. Their roles will be even more essential as economic development gains momentum.
If I gave you a magic wand and told you to use it in Burma, what would you do today?
“I would transform the education system from one that is based almost entirely on rote memorization to a system that emphasizes critical, holistic thinking and values diverse perspectives.”
All citizens must be able to weigh the costs and benefits of policies and have confidence in their ability to express themselves and propose their own initiatives. The provision of education must be extended to all children in the country, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and succeed. Also, the use of local languages should be incorporated out of respect for ethnic rights and to enable more affirmative educational experiences for non-Burmese speakers.