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All eyes on Myanmar reforms

On his trip to South Asia, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has offered substantial aid to Myanmar in return for reforms promoting democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

At the end of a five-day tour of Southeast Asia, Westerwelle arrived in Myanmar on Sunday as the first German foreign minister in more than 25 years to visit the former military dictatorship.

A spokesman for Germany's Foreign Ministry told DW that three topics would be particularly important during this trip: the strengthening of the cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European debt crisis and the promotion of democracy in Thailand and Myanmar.

Myanmar made a significant step forward in the ongoing reforms by holding a by-election on April 1 in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its most famous candidate, Aung Sa Suu Kyi, won 43 of the 45 contested seats.

"The election in Myanmar is a historic step on the path of democratization and national reconciliation," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at that time.

After talks with Suu Kyi on Sunday, the German foreign minister added that Berlin would support the people of Myanmar and was interested in promoting "sustainable reforms for democracy, freedom and the rule of law."

This month's by-election, however, has changed little in the prevailing balance of power, as it affected less than a tenth of all parliamentary seats.

Democratic process

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks to reporters during a news conference in her home in Yangon March 30, 2012. Myanmar holds by-elections on Sunday and Suu Kyi is standing for one of 45 parliamentary seats to be filled. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun (MYANMAR - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS HEADSHOT)

Suu Kyi and her NLD refused to "safeguard" the old constitution

Westerwelle's visit comes at an especially sensitive moment for the development of democratic institutions in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi and other elected members of the NLD refused to attend their first scheduled day in parliament on April 23 because of the requirement to swear to "safeguard" the country's military-friendly constitution. The NLD had petitioned President Thein Sein to change the wording to "respect."

Not all observers agreed that the choice of words was important.

"The NLD was badly advised on this issue," said Gerhard Will of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin. "Other opposition parties have already voiced their criticism. There really are more pressing issues than the oath."

While the NLD boycotted the reconvening of the parliament, the military occupied its new parliamentary seats. Veteran hardliners associated with the former head of state Than Shwe took up the seats of younger officers. This, on the one hand, could be seen a sign of the increasing importance of the parliament, but also as an indicator that the former elite will not give up their privileges voluntarily.

"General Than Shwe has woken up and will be taking the opportunity to sabotage the democratic process," Nhy Ohn Mint, a member of the NLD, told Reuters news agency.

cargo freighters on the Yangon River and the BoTaTaung Pagoda in BoTaTaung Township

Western countries want to see Myanmar reforms succeed

The West remains vigilant

Myanmar has recently had a string of international visitors. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, was at the inauguration of an EU office in Yangon on Saturday. And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was also in Myanmar over the weekend. Since January, Myanmar has also hosted the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Canada, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Their visits heralded the easing of sanctions their governments had maintained against Myanmar because of the previous military regime's repressive policies.

Germany has more than doubled its aid to 16 million euros ($21 million). The European Union is providing an additional 150 million euros.

Economic interests

Aung San Suu Kyi and Guido Westerwelle

Westerwelle's visit to Myanmar is seen a sign of support for the democratic process

Ban Ki-moon's adviser on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, said earlier this week that Burma has the potential to become the next economic tiger of Asia. The German Foreign Ministry also attested that the impoverished country has a "huge economic potential."

According to the global information company International Handling Services (IHS), Myanmar is expected to achieve a 6 percent growth rate and double its gross domestic product to 93 billion euros by 2020.

"Germany has its own economic interests," Will said. "The reform process offers great opportunities. The success of the reforms depends to a large extent on whether they succeed in boosting the country's economy and raising the living standard of the people."

The European Union agreed on April 23 to suspend for a year most of its sanctions against Myanmar, paving the way for European companies to invest in the country which has significant natural resources and neighbors China and India. The European arms embargo remains in place.

Author: Rodio Ebbighausen / tt
Editor: Sean Sinico

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