The Myanmar government under President Thein Sein has introduced reforms that may begin to resolve nearly 60 years of ethnic civil conflict. Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group's Southeast Asia Project Director, speaks about these reforms ahead of Secretary of State Clinton's upcoming visit to Myanmar.
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In advance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s December visit, the Myanmar government under President Thein Sein has introduced reforms that go a long way toward meeting benchmarks set by Western nations imposing sanctions, including releasing political prisoners and allowing the opposition party, the National League of Democracy, to join the political process. Now a bold peace initiative seeks to resolve the devastating civil war between the government and ethnic groups that has lasted since independence in 1948. Here to give his take on President Thein’s peace initiative is Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director.
Jim, when the U.S. Secretary of State visits Myanmar later this week, what will she find?
It’s a country in transition. It’s transforming from an authoritarian military government to a more democratic and open style of government. While there are many problems that persist in terms of human rights abuses, on the national front there is a real spirit and feeling of change that I'm sure she'll pick up on.
Tell me more about these reforms. What has the new president done to help change the country?
When he laid out his reform agenda in March this year, President Thein Sein said you could not have economic reform without political reform. In terms of the political reforms that he's put in place so far, they have radically changed the labor law to allow trade unions to organize, they have increasingly lifted restrictions on the media, and they've recently approved or changed the election law to allow the National League for Democracy, the opposition, to run for parliament, and for its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to also possibly stand and become a legislator.
And have you been able to see any of these reforms in action?
They're real reforms in terms of lifting restrictions on the media. That’s happened in the last couple of months. If you talk to journalists inside the country, they would acknowledge that. President Thein Sein, when he was in Bali recently, gave an unprecedented press conference for local and foreign journalists. And editors at leading publications inside Myanmar talk about increasingly liberal censorship regimes. There's talk of a new media law, and that will help entrench these changes. But the ability of Aung San Suu Kyi to reach out to her supporters, the ability of the National League for Democracy to register as a political party, these are real increases in political freedoms that shouldn't be discounted. There's a lot of small steps here, but they're adding up over time to much greater change.
Take us back just a little bit. The government of Myanmar has been in an almost constant state of civil war with its own minorities since independence in 1948. What are the major drivers of the conflict, and why has it taken so long to get to this point?
Historically, ethnic minorities in Myanmar felt marginalized. After they took up armed struggle against the central government, it led to a very brutal civil war that’s lasted more than 60 years. And it’s created a series of concerns that need to be addressed before a lasting peace can be achieved. The first one is to stop the fighting, and the government has increasingly tried to do this through ceasefires. Then they have to address issues of inequality, the long list of human rights abuses that have taken place in the name of fighting the insurgency. Ethnic minorities don't have the same economic opportunities, and the local economies in the areas where they live are often backwards and they lack access to development like the rest of the country. I think finally the driver of the conflict has always been that the central government has tried to impose its will over the regions, and the regions have fought back. And until there's some concrete form of regional autonomy, this conflict will persist and won't go away.
What is the significance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Myanmar this week?
It’s a powerful endorsement to the government of Myanmar that they are heading in the right direction from one of the world's leading democracies. It’s also a good opportunity for them to reset the strategic relationship with the United States and to rebalance their relationship with China. But to get to this point, the government of Myanmar will have to make more concessions as a result of Clinton's visit. They'll need to release more political prisoners, they'll need to lift more restrictions on freedom of speech, and they need to increasingly give the opposition greater room to participate in the domestic political process.
You mentioned China. Tell me a little bit more about what regional powers can do to engage productively and make sure this peace process is a success.
China has a great strategic interest in the prosperity of Myanmar and having peace on its borders. They wish to have a number of significant infrastructure projects such as gas pipelines and roads built in these very areas where the insurgency has been fought for many years. So China can encourage both sides to talk, as they have done, and to try and resolve these differences in everybody's mutual interest.
Myanmar has been confirmed as the chair of ASEAN in 2014, and to really take on this role, it will need to continue to open up politically, to the point where you could start to imagine that a U.S. President could visit the country, as part of the East Asia Summit, which is part of the annual ASEAN program in 2014. This comes back to these key fundamental political reforms. There needs to be the release of political prisoners, greater freedom of speech, and greater opportunities for political participation for the opposition.
And based on what you've seen on the ground, how likely do you think this is?
The pace of change in Myanmar has been surprising, particularly since the middle of July. And we feel that they momentum is building to a point where it could well be irreversible.
Edited for print