The elections have established the basic composition of the new assemblies at national and regional levels, but they have not resolved numerous pressing questions about how they will function and to what extent they will be able to exercise the powers vested in them under the 2008 Constitution. Will the handful of elected representatives from opposition parties be able to use their positions creatively to effect change? Will regional and minority aspirations be satisfied through the regional assemblies? Will ongoing tensions between centre and periphery be resolved or will they worsen? What plans do military authorities have to effect further political, legal and economic change through the new assemblies and other institutions? What role remains for the NLD and other parties and persons that did not participate in the election and are no longer formally part of the political process? These and many other questions remain largely unanswered.
Against the backdrop of the elections and the laborious work of literally building a national assembly at the new capital of Naypyitaw the military has so far shown no sign that it intends to release its grip on the tools that it has used to repress popular aspirations for genuine change and retain effective control over the state apparatus. Despite the absence of any manifest serious threats to state unity and stability, national security — which is equated with the predominance of the armed forces — remains at the top of regime concerns. Ordinary citizens are imprisoned for trivial acts of resistance or for acting within their legal rights to represent community and public concerns about the corruption and excesses of state officials. The military as an institution is beyond the law, and state security personnel enjoy virtual impunity for human rights abuses carried out in the name of national interests. So far there is no indication that army leaders will be prepared to negotiate over control of the state, or allow for any true contest or verification of their policies and programs. Nor is there as yet any sign that they will be disposed to tolerate compromises that might involve different parties conceding ground to ensure outcomes that can really command wider support.
Although the country has formally returned to constitutional rule, it remains to be seen as to the extent to which state agencies will adhere to the constitution's provisions. In the absence of the rule of law, the formal constitutional rearrangement of law-making and law-enforcing institutions will do little to bridge the vast gaps between what is on paper and what happens in reality. There are no institutions to protect basic civil rights. Private media are routinely censored. Moreover, workers are prohibited from forming unions, striking or taking other actions to demand reasonable wages and conditions. What steps can be taken to protect fundamental rights and establish some minimal conditions for the emergence of the rule of law? What can be done to ensure greater respect for property rights, so as to protect citizens against wanton confiscation of land, and extortion of money and assets? Can the new assemblies play any role in effecting changes that might lead to wider political and social reforms aimed at protecting rights?
The chronic lack of transparency, unaccountability, non-responsiveness and absence of integrity from most government processes in Myanmar/Burma continues to raise profound doubts about how the formal return to constitutional and parliamentary government might enhance prospects for improved governance. Few in the country have any memory or experience of participatory government. Few are acquainted with the types of consultative processes associated with democratic change in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, continued official insistence on the control of humanitarian aid deters many international donors, whose generosity will not surpass what they see as self-serving policies which do not give priority to alleviating the plight of ordinary people. Improved access for foreign media and researchers could overcome chronic problems associated with a lack of reliable information and excessive government secrecy. The denial of freer access is counterproductive for everyone, since it results in mostly negative press for the government and hampers informed debate about the country internationally. The lifting of many restrictions on the flow of information could encourage agencies that have been reluctant to get involved in Myanmar/Burma to consider initiating projects.
Can international assistance more effectively contribute to an environment that might improve the prospects for genuine political, economic and social change? To what extent can international agencies get involved beyond purely humanitarian endeavours? In what ways and through which organisations can assistance be delivered to strengthen capacity and enhance governance without providing unintended support for the military? Can strategically designed and targeted interventions realistically introduce or consolidate more far-reaching and sustainable improvements? These and the questions raised above speak to the main themes for the 2011 Myanmar/Burma Update.
Monday, 16 May 2011, 9.00am to 5.00pm
Tuesday, 17 May 2011, 9.00am to 4.00pm
Hedley Bull Lecture Theatre, Hedley Bull Centre, ANU
Pro Vice-Chancellor International and Major Projects University of Canberra
Visiting Fellow, Department of Political and Social Change, ANU,
PhD Candidate, Department of Political and Social Change, ANU,