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Taming a potential tiger

Progress towards democracy in Myanmar has opened the door to renewed international investment, prompting a visit by the German foreign minister to support the reform process.

The reform process in Myanmar, formerly Burma, over the last 18 months took another important step with the run-off parliamentary elections on April 1. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and its most famous candidate, Aung San Suu Kyi, won 43 of the 45 seats available.

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

ASEAN-EU foreign ministers meeting in Brunei with German Foreign Minister Westerwelle (center)

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (center) is keen to promote reforms in Myanmar

The run-off ballot, however, did little to change the existing power structures, since less than 10 percent of all the seats in parliament were up for grabs.

The German foreign minister is now set to visit Myanmar, along with Thailand, as part of his current agenda, after attending the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Brunei.

Three issues are on that agenda, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry told Deutsche Welle: Strengthening cooperation with ASEAN countries, overcoming the European debt crisis and promoting democratic developments in Thailand and, above all, Myanmar.

Old guard still in the driver's seat

The democratic process in Myanmar still demands attention and support, despite the euphoria following the recent elections. On Monday, the NLD boycotted parliament, refusing to take the oath of office based on the 2008 constitution, which, in their view, only cements control of the country by the military. Democracy advocates did not want to commit themselves to "safeguarding" the constitution, but rather only to "respect" it, and demanded that the oath be changed.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to supporters

Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party is boycotting parliament

Not all observers think the choice of words is all that important. "The NLD was poorly advised on this question. Other opposition parties have already voiced criticism. There are really more pressing and important problems than the oath," said Gerhard Will, an Asia expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

While the NLD boycotts parliament, the military has appointed deputies to fill its own seats. Veteran hardliners of former strongman Than Shwe have been replaced by younger officers. This reflects the growing importance of parliament, but also illustrates that the country's old elite is not about to give up its privileges voluntarily. Nhy Ohn Mint, a member of the NLD, expressed his concern in an interview with Reuters. "This has not gone unnoticed by General Than Shwe who may possibly use the opportunity to sabotage the democratic process," he said.

A watchful West

The visit to Myanmar by the German foreign minister, following on the heels of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron, is more than just a signal to the government to stay the course with reforms, but also a message to the Burmese people that the West is closely watching how developments unfold. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also expected in Myanmar this weekend to take a closer look at the reform process.

In an effort to promote the reform process with more than just words, the German government has doubled its development aid to 16 million euros ($12.3 million), while the European Union is set to give Myanmar an additional 150 million euros.

Economic interests

The country's reform process must not only assert itself against the old hardliners, but also against an all too abrupt economic opening. Ban Ki-moon's Myanmar adviser, Vijay Nambiar said this week that the country has the economic potential to become the next Asian tiger.

Dr. Gerhard Will from the SWP

Reforms in Myanmar depend on economic development, argues Gerhard Will

The German foreign ministry is also convinced that the country has what it called "an enormous economic potential." International Handling Services (IHS), an economic forecast institute, predicts annual growth rates of 6 percent for the Southeast Asian country through 2020 and a doubling of gross domestic product to 93 billion euros.

Among the measures to support the reform process, the German foreign ministry expressly mentions "encouraging business and industry to make use of the new opportunities", besides expanding the work of policy institutes and cooperation in cultural, scientific and educational areas.

Gerhard Will, from the SWP, emphasizes that "for Germany this means economic interests. The reform process, in particular, offers tremendous opportunities." He is quick to point out, of course, that economic development also represents a chance for Myanmar. "The success of the reform process depends to a large degree on whether or not economic development can be stimulated and the standard of living of the people can be raised."

A key prerequisite for economic investment from Germany was met when EU foreign ministers suspended sanctions against Myanmar earlier this week. The European Union lifted its travel bans, asset freezes and trade restrictions after determining that the elections in early April were free and fair. Only a weapons embargo is still in effect.

Author: Rodion Ebbinghausen / gb
Editor: Anne Thomas

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