Myanmar is riding a wave of optimism. Now that EU sanctions have been lifted, change could come quickly to the country. But experts say a number of obstacles remain.
It is as if the lights have gone on in Myanmar, journalist Nwet Kay Khin says with regards to the everyday mood in the country.
"My feeling at the moment is like what I have when the power goes out in Yangon. One can imagine how dark it is then. And when the electricity suddenly comes back on, the kids on the streets and all of the families yell 'Hey!' Everyone's excited because they can watch movies again, cook rice or turn on the washing machine," she said.
"But then after five minutes it goes out again, and the 'Hey!' becomes a disappointed 'Hmph!'"
Reforms at lightning speed
Myanmar's process of democratization has been full of hopes and disappointments. At the moment, reformists are seeing changes come at a tempo they could have scarcely imagined two years ago.
After 30 years in which the same demands have been made again and again to no avail, it is wonderful to be able to relate positive developments, said EU Green Party delegate Barbara Lochbiler to an audience in Berlin at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Green-affiliated political and pro-democracy association. The foundation's summit brought a group of experts together from academia, politics and media to discuss changes in Myanmar.
The media in particular has seen a number of developments recently, reports Nwet Khay Khin, who works for a monthly magazine published from Yangon titled "The Voice."
In 2008, at least 20 percent of the publication's articles fell victim to the censors, but that number has fallen to 10 percent now. Journalists can also cover a much broader range of topics, including reporting on the opposition party NLD, environmental issues and, to some extent, on human rights violations.
Obstacles along the way
But are the developments in Myanmar headed in any certain direction? That seems unlikely, according to the foundation's panelists. Yasmin Lorch, a guest researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, listed three problems for democratization in Myanmar: the enduring disputes between the government and the country's ethnic minorities, the weakness of Myanmar's civil institutions and, finally, the possibility that a deeper conflict could emerge between the government and the opposition party NLD.
The latter is a fear shared by Jost Pachaly, who heads the South East Asian office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
"What happens if the NLD's overwhelming success with voters repeats itself in 2015? Then the government would be faced with a situation similar to one in 1988, when the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's party was annulled," Pachaly said.
Killed by kindness?
A clear question emerges: did the EU's move to lift its sanctions on Myanmar last week come too soon?
Yes, Lochbiler argues. She would have preferred to see sanctions eased gradually as a means of keeping pressure on the government in the meantime. On the other hand, Lochbiler admits that the sanctions have done little to improve the state of human rights in Myanmar.
Opening up to the West has created a positive competitive situation, Pachaly says. In years past, Myanmar faced a one-sided dependency on Chinese investors. But now the government can seek out cooperative arrangements with investors from China, countries in the ASEAN block, the USA and Europe, Pachaly adds.
Nwet Kay Khin seconds that analysis, saying Myanmar desperately needs investors - not just when it comes to industry, but also in education. She hopes, however, that the country will not fall into dependency on aid organizations.
That could be a well-founded concern. Now that the reform process appears to be underway, development groups have flocked to Myanmar. Yasmin Lorch has already heard several NGOs based in Myanmar saying they hope not to kill the economy with kindness.
Pachaly agrees: "The reforms in Myanmar need to proceed at the right pace and with a certain degree of carefulness."
Author: Rebecca Roth / gsw
Editor: Simon Bone