x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Reform momentum for a 'new' Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged victorious in another election. This time, unlike previous elections, Myanmar seems on course of meaningful political change.

In a speech to supporters after her election-day triumph, Aung San Suu Kyi walked a rhetorical tightrope. The pro-democracy leader praised the turnout and the outcome, but cautioned that Myanmar's future was not entirely in the people's hands.

"We hope," she said cautiously, "this is the beginning of a new era."

Myanmar's 60 million people could certainly find reasons for scepticism. During most of the last five decades, Myanmar's military rulers isolated the nation from the outside world, making one of South-east Asia's most prosperous nations into one of its poorest. The economy still lags behind its neighbours despite vast natural resources.

Systematic repression of dissent has driven intellectuals into exile, and resulted in thousands of political prisoners (some of whom still languish in jail). Ms Suu Kyi herself spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. During protests ain 1988, thousands were killed and the junta overturned Ms Suu Kyi's party's 1990 elections victory; an uprising led by Buddhist monks in 2007 was met with similar violence.

Against that backdrop, the events of the past year have taken many by surprise. A civilian government (led by a pro-military president, Thein Sein) has been in office since August, some political prisoners have been freed, media restrictions lifted and labour unions permitted. The military junta has also revalued the currency, the kyat, in a key component of planned economic overhaul.

Why the ageing generals have allowed the country to change so rapidly remains an open question. Widespread public disillusionment, foreign pressure and even a genuine inclination to reform all played a part. What is more certain is that if change continues apace, Myanmar has a chance to be a model of peaceful transition.

There are still considerable obstacles. The victory by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in Sunday's elections will only gain a few dozen seats in the country's parliament; the generals still have a stranglehold on power. Some ethnic-minority groups are engaged in open conflict with the brutal federal army and, in other cases, are operating drugs factories that poison the region.

And yet these reforms, particularly the currency revaluation, would be very difficult to row back. Even as a member of parliament, Ms Suu Kyi may not be able to save her country. But perhaps she will not need to.