Myanmar: The Changing Scene
Myanmar: The Changing Scene
Podcast / Asia 4 minutes

Myanmar: The Changing Scene

Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director, discusses changes in Myanmar and the steps international organizations and governments should take to encourage development.

In this podcast, Jim Della-Giacoma discusses changes in Myanmar and the steps international organizations and governments should take to encourage development. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

In June, Myanmar's government saw its worst clashes with militias in Kachin State since 2009. The most recent confrontations along the country’s northern and eastern borders are part of a decades-old conflict against successive military regimes. The Kachin News Group says the Chinese presence was an excuse to allow the government to attack rebels. Abandoned ceasefire agreements and continued fighting could hurt China's massive energy interest in the region. A flawed election in November kept the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party and military elite in power, though Myanmar has since seen incremental policy shifts, including increased transparency and a nominally civilian leadership. Joining me to talk about this today is Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director.

Jim, what is the significance of the latest border clashes?

The fighting between the army in Myanmar, or the Tatmadaw, and the Kachin rebel groups is significant because it’s seen a breaking of the ceasefire, and that is a very negative development. The agreement that has held for many years has now effectively been revoked. What will follow it is still unclear. The fighting itself has died down, but we are not sure whether this confrontation is part of a larger or strategic move against the ethnic groups or whether this was just localized fighting between the army and the rebel forces.

And it ended because the Chinese stepped in. Do we know in what capacity?

Because of their significant economic investments, China has a lot riding on stability in the border area between its provinces and Myanmar. After the fighting started, there were a number of calls, particularly from the Kachin Independence Organisation, for Beijing to intervene. While it wasn’t a very public move, after a few days of fighting, there had clearly been signals sent to both sides that Beijing disapproved of this conflict. There seemed to be a toning down of the rhetoric and the fighting.

It is significant that the ceasefire was broken as a result of this fighting, but it also shows that the major player in resolving these issues is China. Now, we are waiting to see whether both sides can get back to the table to restore the broken ceasefire—or to repair it to a point where we can have some confidence that small disputes won't lead to a larger return to the fighting we have seen in the 60-year long civil war.

Several prominent NGOs wrote a letter to President Obama on July 7 asking for a UN commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Myanmar, and also asking for additional targeted banking sanctions. Would these instruments effect any real change?

We disagree with the diagnosis as well as the prescribed cure. In fact, even if the diagnosis were correct, the proposed cure would probably make things worse. First, we should be doing no harm, and then we should be seeing if there is actually something that can be done to help. It’s the wrong diagnosis because it assumes that the military is still in control when the actual situation now is much more complex.

There is a new government. Those members who make up the key leadership positions are retired military, but they are now in a sense competing for power. It does appear that General Than Shwe has retired, and there are now multiple centers of power and influence in their government. To characterize it as a military government is wrong.

We think it's the wrong prescription as well because the sort of political change that is desired in Myanmar is not going to come about by supporting a commission of inquiry or by the United States wagging its finger and imposing more sanctions. But if sanctions are going to be imposed that are targeted at individuals—which we don't necessarily disagree with—there should be a change in US policy away from broad-brush restrictions on international financial institutions—for example, the World Bank and the IMF—from operating in Myanmar. You can't have both targeted sanctions and these broad, blunt restrictions on international development assistance.

So then what can the US government do to have more constructive engagement with Myanmar?

The trend among other donors and other western countries active in Myanmar such as the United Kingdom and Australia is to increase development aid. So, there is a move away from just providing aid that is focused or tagged as humanitarian to looking at the long term and trying to improve the livelihoods of poor people, which is the new government’s agenda as well. Also, it’s important to target that development assistance beyond select areas and to try to move into the ethnic groups, to try and work with subnational groups or the new provincial governments. To try and bring some peace dividend or benefits to those ethnic areas where there are ceasefires in place. To encourage people or to show them that there is a way forward by peaceful cooperation and that both sides will benefit from future development assistance if they can agree to stop fighting.

What is changing in Myanmar today? What has the new government done to change the country?

Besides the changes in the way the country is governed—and they’re still very new—there are new provincial governments. There is a new government structure and a way of making policy. There are small incremental changes that are happening in terms of political space and opportunities for political activity.

The new parliament has provided and will possibly provide more space for criticism of the government. It allows space for the discussion of issues such as political prisoners which have so far been taboo in Myanmar. It allows complaints, for example, with regards to the slow registration of non-governmental organizations to be raised in public and for the government to then address them, as they did in March.

There have been some restrictions lifted on press censorship or the way publications have to be checked before they go to print, as well as just allowing NGOs greater room to move and to do their activities in some so-called safe areas, such as in the fields of environmental activism, health and HIV/AIDS, and working for village development or rural credit.

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