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Asia

Myanmar awaits freedom 65 years after independence

Sixty-five years ago, Myanmar became independent from Great Britain. But instead of freedom and prosperity, what followed was years of armed conflict which still continues. But reforms have given new impetus.

On January 4, 1948, British soldiers removed the Union Jack from the front of the government building in Yangon - then Rangoon. Not long after that, it was replaced with the country's new national flag - red with six stars behind a patch of blue. Thus ended Britain's colonial power over what became the "Republic of Burma."

The unity of the country, however, did not come automatically with its new flag. Politically- and ethnically-driven uprisings threw the country into an era of bloody conflict. No government managed to end the fighting and create a common identity for the country's people.

"Since its independence in 1948, the country has been in a never-ending civil war that is still going today," independent Myanmar expert Hans-Bernd Zöllner told DW.

Unexpected change

Evacuees react after being received by Kachin's soldiers in Kachin state in this still image taken from a video dated December 28, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Courtesy of Democratic Voice of Burma/Handout)

People in Kachin fled conflict just days before the New Year

In the year 2010, however, the country's political course took a surprising turn with the reforming agenda of President Thein Sein.

Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign welcomes the reforms the country has been experiencing since then. But he also warns of an increase in conflict.

"Myanmar is experiencing different kinds of change. On the one hand," he explained, "there have been dramatic reforms. On the other hand, we have also seen an increase in ethnic conflict.

While parts of the country have been developing for the better, other parts are going downhill."

On the second day of 2013, a bloody conflict broke out between the national army and armed members of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the northeastern Kachin state. The military even deployed its airforce.

Farmaner said one reason for the increase in conflict was due to the lack of willingness to negotiate on the government's part. "Changes that take place in the country have all been enacted by the president, without any kind of consultation."

Zöllner believes the reforms are primarily initiated by the military. "The country's turn-around is the result of careful military planning."

However, Zöllner does not believe all the military influence should be viewed negatively. He said it should not go unrecognized that members of the military in 1988 had created a form of democracy and that they had stayed true to it by introducing reform. He said the military's top priority was to ensure the unity of the country, which was quite vulnerable.

The ‘third independence’

A soldier walks amid the rubble of a neighbourhood in Pauktaw township that was burned in recent violence October 27, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

Ethnic Rohingya fled the country by the thousands following violence in 2012

The actual challenge for Myanmar today is to continue on the path of democratization while at the same time preserving unity. The problem is, "the country is a state, but not a nation. There is no common identity. What we see happening now is the third war for national independence," Zöllner said.

The phrase "third independence" refers to a famous speech made by Aung San Suu Kyi. In the year 1988, violent protests broke out in the then capital Yangon. The opposition leader Suu Kyi demanded a "third independence" for around 500,000 people. What she meant was a new start in politics and society. The protests were beaten down and Suu Kyi was put under house arrest.

Farmaner, who travelled to Myanmar a total of eight times in 2012, said there was now a chance for such a new start - but only if the government managed to make their reforms sustainable.

"In the beginning, the people were very happy about all of the change. But now they have started asking questions. They expect more fundamental changes to take place in the coming years."

Particularly important, said Farmaner, was the need for an end to armed conflict, the release of prisoners of conscience, the fixation of new freedoms in law, transparency of government and also an improvement of living standards.

Institutions, not people

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and President Thein Sein posing for a photo before their meeting at the presidential office in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 19 August 2011. (Photo: EPA/MNA / HANDOUT)

Aung San Suu Kyi officially joined President Thein Sein in politics in April 2012

Regarding the reform process, Zöllner pointed out that it was dangerous to put all hopes on people - for example Aung San Suu Kyi or President Thein Sein - alone, but instead, in institutions. For this, there were a number of institutions which needed to be created from scratch as there were hardly any functioning institutions outside the military's jurisdiction. He estimated the process would take "Twenty years, at best."

In his New Year's address - the first to be held in the country since the military took power - President Thein Sein called for mutual trust and also patience. He also said there were gaps between the expectations of the people and the possibilities of the government.

For long-term change, opposition parties, such as Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and others which were born out of the 1988 protests, should continue to receive support from the West. But with regard to this, Farmaner said current developments were worrying: "The international community, which has played a pivotal role for the NLD and the country's democratization, has changed its agenda. Now the focus is on China, North Korea and economic interests and human rights have been placed on the back burner."

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