′Rapid and risky′ change in Myanmar | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 30.04.2012
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'Rapid and risky' change in Myanmar

After a dispute over the oath of office, Myanmar's leading pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has decided to enter parliament. Experts in Berlin say the country's democratic transition is 'rapid and risky.'

The journalist, Nwet Kay Khin, describes to the audience in Berlin how many of her compatriots regard the current political transition in Myanmar.

"The feeling I have right now is similar to the feeling I get when the power goes out in Yangon,” she says. “You can imagine how dark it is at night when there is no electricity. And when the power suddenly goes back on, you hear the children in the neighborhood shouting 'Hey!' And everyone is happy because they can watch movies, cook rice or turn on their washing machines. But five minutes later, the power is cut again and you hear sighs of disappointment."

The process of democratization in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is one of many ups and downs, but it is advancing at a speed that only two years ago would have been deemed impossible.

(From left to right:) Katrin Altmeyer, Jasmin Lorch, Barbara Lochbihler

Experts say Myanmar's transition is 'rapid and risky'

At a panel discussion organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation ahead of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle's trip to Myanmar, German Green Party MEP Barbara Lochbihler said that after 30 years of stagnation, she was happy to finally see positive developments in the country.

Nwet Khay Khin, who works for the monthly Burmese newspaper "The Voice," said that a lot had changed, especially in the media. While in 2008 at least 20 percent of her articles had been cut by the censors, now it was only 10 percent, she said.

She added that journalists today were allowed to write stories on a wider range of topics, even about the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the environment and a little about human rights.

The largest step forward was the April 1 by-election, in which NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other party members ran for 43 seats in parliament, winning them all. Last Monday, the EU suspended sanctions against Myanmar for a year.

Political change

Nonetheless, the participants of the Heinrich Böll Foundation panel discussion were not convinced that Myanmar's transition process was on solid ground. Yasmin Lorch, a visiting researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, named three risks that could jeopardize democratization: conflict between the government and the country’s ethnic minorities, the weaknesses of Myanmar’s civil institutions, and the possibility of more intensive conflict between the government and the NLD.

Jost Pachaly, the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Southeast Asia office, posed the question: "What would happen if the 2015 parliamentary elections saw the same type of landslide results for the opposition as the last by-election?"

Nwet Kay Khin

Nwet Kay Khin says there is less censorship than before

The government would then be in a similar position as it was in 1988, when it revoked Suu Kyi's election victory, he answered.

Opening up

In response to the question of whether the EU's suspension of sanctions was premature, Lochbihler said the EU had acted too hastily. She said she would have liked to see a gradual lifting of sanctions as leverage against the government, though she admitted sanctions had done little to improve Myanmar's human rights situation.

Jost Pachaly said the country opening up to the West would create healthy competition. Before, he said, Myanmar had been dependent on Chinese investments and now the government could choose to work with investors from China, ASEAN member states, the US and EU.

Jost Pachaly

Jost Pachaly is optimistic about economic reform

Nwet Kay Khin agreed and said that her country was in desperate need of investment - not only the economy, but also education. She said she also hoped that the country would not become dependent on aid from development organizations.

'Don't kill us with your kindness'

Her concern seems justified. Since the beginning of the country's reforms, stakeholders from the business sector have been knocking at the door, as have development organizations.

"Don't kill us with your kindness" is something Nwet Kay Khin has heard from various Burmese NGOs. That's why, Pachaly insists, the "reforms in Myanmar need time and an element of caution."

Myanmar's process of democratization is only a small budding seed, but, as Nwet Kay Khin pointed out, small can also be beautiful.

Author: Rebecca Roth / sb
Editor: Anne Thomas

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