Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Obama should meet with Suu Kyi and Thein Sein: report

Wednesday, 12 September 2012 13:18 Mizzima News

A new CSIS report has recommended that President Barrack Obama meet with both Aung San Suu Kyi and Burmese President Thein Sein when they are both in the US in September.

A group from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSISO) visited Burma in August to explore the political, economic, and social reforms launched by the new civilian government and develop policy recommendations for the US government.

Among the report’s recommendations were that Obama meet both Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It said members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) recommended he meet with both leaders.

The report said to expect another significant release of political prisoners in September. Leaders and senior officials said they expected the government to release a substantial percentage of the remaining political prisoners before Thein Sein visits the United States in late September.

The opposition NLD has given the government a list of 330 political prisoners remaining in detention. Some other groups estimate that more than 500 political prisoners are still in prison, said the report.

It also said the US should move toward conditionally removing its remaining sanctions on imports from Burma and immediately allow US support for assistance programs by international financial institutions in Burma.

If the Burmese government releases all or most of its remaining political prisoners before Thein Sein visits the US, the U.S. government should make clear its intention to take steps to ease the sanctions against Burma’s exports, it said.

The US government also should use the Burmese government’s interest in getting the export sanctions lifted to press the regime to step up transparency in the extractive industries, including by signing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), said the report.

It also said that the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) should be required to prepare an annual report on its activities for Parliament to leverage resource revenue sharing; encourage transparent contribution of funds for spending in core areas such as education, health care, and infrastructure; protect the environment; and promote workers’ rights.

The delegation heard requests from the democratic opposition, civil society leaders, and international organizations for the United States to support political reform by allowing for economic development, job creation, and a measured and conditioned process of sanctions lifting by the United States that provides leverage to those seeking a transparent, accountable, and sustainable opening of the country. This principle should be reflected in U.S. policy, it said.

The report called for substantial levels of assistance for capacity building at all levels. The US, which is reopening its U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Burma in September, should coordinate with other donor nations to leverage its support and provide targeted assistance to enhance governance, rule of law, and skills.

It said the assistance should include training to increase the capacity of officials in Parliament, the executive branch, and the judiciary and provide guidance on best practices for how these institutions should function to create conditions for political stability and democracy.

Training should focus particularly on rule of law, transparency, and policies to govern the economy, protect the environment, and rein in corruption.

The report said civil society leaders and opposition political leaders called for a massive increase in English language training across the board so that people beyond the elites and their children would have access to foreign training inside the country and be able to study abroad.

CISI called for an increase engagement with Burma’s military. The United States should use engagement opportunities to provide training to a new generation of military officers in such areas as civilian-military relations, law of war, and transparency. Many of the most reform-oriented senior officers in the current government are products of international military education, including in US institutions. It said vetting military officers and complying with U.S. legislation will not be easy, particularly as fighting continues in some areas controlled by ethnic groups such as Kachin State and violations of ceasefires continue in other border areas.

If the military continues to support the transition to civilian rule and observes cease-fires in ethnic minority areas, the United States should begin to consider joint military exercises with the Burmese armed forces and provide selected officers access to US International Military Education and Training opportunities in U.S. defense academies. More immediately, it said, the United States and Asean should engage the Myanmar military in such forums as the annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore and the biannual Asean Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus.

The report said a strong Asean is a vital foundation for developing regional architecture, including the East Asia Summit, Asean Regional Forum, Asean Defense Ministers Plus, the Transpacific Partnership, and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. A weak and isolated Burma has for years undercut efforts toward a strong and unified Asean, it said.

The report called for exploring collaboration with China in Burma. It said the widespread belief that the Burmese government’s concerns about excessive dependence on China was a primary motivator in prompting military leaders to pursue reform appears to be overstated.

In fact, the group’s interlocutors stressed China’s role as a traditional neighbor and encouraged the United States to avoid zero-sum policies toward China. Given China’s long near-monopoly on political ties, military sales, and trade with during the decades of military rule, the country’s rapidly warming ties with the United States are being greeted with suspicion in China and are stoking fears about imagined US containment efforts. A proactive policy of consultation with China on the US approach toward Burma could help mitigate concerns in Beijing about the United States using Burma to contain China.

Real change is under way in Burma, the report said. Political and economic reforms launched by President Thein Sein and his allies and broadly supported by opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appear to be real, but the process for implementing and institutionalizing those changes remains fragile and is not irreversible.

The people the delegation met in the government, the opposition, civil society, and private sector consistently expressed goodwill and strong support for the changes outlined by the government, but confidence in their ultimate success was hardly universal.

Members of the military the delegation met were supportive of the reform process, though it was impossible to gauge how far the military will go in voluntarily ceding further power to civilians, said the report. Notably, government and military leaders alike indicated that they expected the military to reduce its role in Parliament and government in general, including reducing the constitutionally mandated requirement for 25 percent of the Parliament to be held by the military.

The president is moving in the right direction, but the extent of support for reform is still not fully tested. President Thein Sein has consolidated his power and moved forward with important steps such as ending press censorship, shuffling those not aligned with reform out of his cabinet and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to run for election and sit in Parliament.

However, some of the hardest political hurdles in addressing the residual power centers of the old regime lie ahead. After nearly five decades of military rule, learned governance habits tend to be top-down—“give orders, take orders,” as one expert noted.

This creates risk, said CISI. For instance, both the president and the National Defense and Security Council retain the constitutional right to declare emergency rule at any time. The lack of resource-sharing agreements in ethnic areas or transparency in the government budget means that the powerful cronies (often referred to as “proxies”) from the previous regime have not yet seen their core equities challenged.

The CSIS delegation said it heard broad consensus that the military wants to transition to a professional military role, but this appears to be contingent on the maintenance of peace and stability. Peace and stability is contingent on the ruling party and the democratic opposition finding a way forward in the midst of numerous competing interests and within a fragile political space.

The transition is complicated and possibly threatened by ongoing ethnic strife, for instance in Rakhine and Kachin states. Many ethnic groups continue to feel that their influence within the transition remains severely limited or nonexistent.

Burma is geo-strategically important and is the second largest country in terms of landmass in Southeast Asia. It is the fifth most populous with a population of roughly 55 million and is located at the crossroads of China, India, and Southeast Asia.

Lack of training and expertise could hobble reform, said the report. The lack of expertise and experience is one of the biggest challenges facing the reforms. People the group met readily admitted that many officials have little idea what political reform and democracy mean after decades of authoritarian rule. The same is true for economic reforms.

For instance, parliamentarians across political parties said they were hungry for models they could apply for lawmaking, staffing, and due process. At present, the legislative process is, by default, top heavy; the leadership develops ideas and pushes them down for approval, reflecting the military background of the leaders. For instance, topics to be raised for debate in Parliament need to be approved in advance.

Officials talked about the difficulty of getting new policies implemented at the local level, though it often was not clear to what extent this was due to foot dragging or a lack of understanding. Parliamentarians say they have no experience, no legal expertise, no staff, and no libraries. What they say they need most is capacity building and exposure to the experience of other democracies.

The report said the regime appears to be severing military ties with North Korea. Burma’s officials said they recognize how important this issue is to the United States, insisted that the government did not have (or no longer had) such ties, and said they will abide by all UN Security Council resolutions related to North Korea.

Officials have negotiated cease-fires with 10 ethnic groups, but the earlier ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the north has collapsed since the civilian government took office last year. Low-level fighting, human rights violations, and the displacement of villagers continue. It said President Thein Sein has assigned Aung Min, his office’s dynamic reform-minded minister who was promoted in a cabinet shuffle in late August from his role as minister of railways, to begin a political dialogue with five of the cease-fire groups.

It is still far from clear how a fair political settlement, a condition for most of the groups to lay down their arms, will be achieved with the ethnic groups. Two years ago, the notion of “federalism” was considered a dirty word by the government. Today government officials have begun to talk openly about the concept, although they leave it undefined, the report said.

The delegation heard considerable goodwill toward the ethnic groups from senior officials, but so far much of their attention is focused on cease-fires, which history suggests is not enough to resolve long-standing differences. Land-grabbing, failure to compensate locals for land and resources, and similar abuses continue to be reported in ethnic minority areas and remain the hardest challenge for the government in managing its powerful military and its long-standing economic interests.

Some form of equitable revenue sharing will need to be worked out, the report said, particularly because the areas where the ethnic minorities live are where much of the country’s oil and gas, mineral, and forestry wealth are located. Failure to address resource sharing would likely derail efforts to move from ceasefires to political settlement. This is important because economic growth—namely, creating jobs and opportunities—is a key factor for sustained peace and stability in areas controlled by ethnic minorities.

There still does not appear to be the sustained and high-level focus on political empowerment of the ethnic minorities that is necessary before stability, reconciliation, and development can occur.

One other critical unanswered question is what the ethnics, who are divided into many different groups, want in exchange for laying down their weapons and reconciling with the new government. Even in areas where cease-fires have been signed, government troops have not been withdrawn; ethnic leaders say that they continue to face human rights violations and that many of their former fields are still heavily mined.

The Rohingya and Rakhine State threaten to undermine reforms and national unity. The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim minority group living in the western state of Rakhine, are considered by the United Nations to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The government does not officially recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s minority groups and will not grant them citizenship. Violence in the region was stirred up earlier this year, and on June 10 an emergency was declared, allowing the military to enter the region to quell the violence. By the end of August, 88 people had died in clashes. Thein Sein said July 12 that deporting the Rohingyas should be the solution to the problem. Disappointingly, many groups and individuals generally supportive of human rights either support the president’s view or like NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi remain silent on the issue.

One of the key questions in Burma today is why the former military regime mounted a political liberalization effort. Some analysts have suggested that China’s increasingly dominant role in the country’s economy was a key factor in prompting the reforms to allow the government to court closer relations with the United States, Europe, and Japan. But, inside the country, officials and observers stressed such internal factors as the leadership’s damaged pride and embarrassment over the country’s falling economically so far behind its neighbors, the army’s fatigue with running the country (including the military’s tarnished image after it brutally repressed Buddhist monk led protests in 2007), and the increasing clamor by the country’s people for a voice in shaping their destiny.

Officials credited former strongman Than Shwe with initiating the top-down reforms in 2004 with his seven-point democracy roadmap and then stepping aside for Thein Sein in March 2011 following elections.

Describing Than Shwe as a wily political manipulator, informed observers speculated that he sought to diffuse power to avoid a Ceausescu-style uprising in the wake of the Arab Spring and to safeguard his inner circle’s perquisites once safely in retirement. “The military needed a graceful exit,” one official said.

Government officials, including representatives of the Ministry of Defense, said they expected the military planned to gradually cede its grip on 25 percent of the seats in Parliament as is now mandated in the constitution.

Officials frequently cited the Indonesia model where the military gradually gave up the protected seats it had in the Parliament following the 1998 toppling of President Suharto. The military says it wants to professionalize, cede its dominant role in politics, and focus on national security issues. To achieve this, military leaders say extensive training is needed, particularly among young rising officers. The military says it has the utmost respect for the professionalism of the US military and would like to receive as much training as the United States is willing to offer.

Commitment to reform is driven by a small group of leaders. Most officials and observers believe that the reforms are being driven by President Thein Sein with strong support from a small core of reform-minded colleagues in the cabinet, including Aung Min, Industry Minister Soe Thein, and Planning Minister Tin Naing Thein. These three were promoted to an inner circle of ministers in the President’s Office in late August.

Shwe Mann, is also described as a committed reformer, even though the legislature is often in competition with the executive branch, said the report. Most of those interviewed by the CSIS group said the reforms were not completely dependent on President Thein Sein, though there was a consensus that he was uniquely courageous and bold in driving the reform agenda. That said, it was difficult for the group to determine whether the broader political elite serves as a silent reservoir of support for the handful of committed reformers or is simply sitting on the fence waiting to see which way the political winds blow.

Is the decisive moment for reform 2015, or now? Some analysts have argued that the next big opportunity to promote reform will come around the time of the next national elections in 2015. But civil society activists we met, including NLD leaders and long-imprisoned leaders of the 1988 Generation student uprising, said that the important time to build support for reform and institutionalize the changes is between now and 2015.

They argued that it is critical that the opposition work now to build confidence within the military so it will have enough trust to allow amendments to address the limits on democracy in the constitution and not panic if the opposition wins the majority in Parliament.

The group met with political prisoners released over the past year; all stressed the need to build confidence rather than seek retribution against their former jailers. Their sense of mission, discipline, and apparent lack of desire for retribution was striking, the report said.

Political reform is leading economic reform. So far most of the reforms have focused more on the political system than the economy, although officials recognize that popular expectations are running high and that economic development is critical to maintain political and popular momentum for the country’s political transition. The fact that the only other country to follow this order of reform was the former Soviet Union is not lost on officials and helps explain at least in part why they are so eager for foreign investment and other economic assistance.

Burma’s business executives said that President Thein Sein seems to have decided not to punish former cronies/proxies, but these corrupt businessmen appear to have lost most of their former privileges as the president has moved to level the playing field, said the report.

The monopoly of a few military companies on importing cooking oil and cars has ended, causing prices to drop sharply on these two items. Ministers feel they cannot have any dealings with cronies out of fear they could face charges of corruption, the report said. To burnish their image, some cronies are reportedly mounting corporate social responsibility projects and asking foreign diplomats for information on international labor standards.

Businessmen from Europe, Japan, and the United States are packing airplanes into the country and Yangon’s hotels to come look at the last unexplored frontier in Southeast Asia, but very few have signed any agreements to invest. Among other things, they are vetting potential joint venture partners to ensure they are not on the US Specifically Designated Nationals List, which includes people deemed to have engaged in activities that violated human rights or hindered political reform or the peace process with ethnics. They are also waiting to interpret the newly passed foreign investment law. Beyond that, foreign companies recognize that the country still lacks basic infrastructure, including reliable electricity and ports, rule of law, an educated and trained workforce and strong property rights.

Finally, the report warned to beware of moves to change the electoral system. The success of the NLD in April’s by-elections, in which it won 43 out of 45 seats, has prompted discussion about changing the country’s election format from a winner-take-all system to proportional representation.

The ruling USDP won only one seat in the by-election even though it garnered 30 percent of the vote, and leaders are said to be concerned that the party could be wiped out by an NLD landslide in the elections in 2015 unless proportional representation is introduced.

Many opposition officials and civil society leaders interviewed were not pleased with the manner in which their country’s name was changed from Burma to Myanmar, but they told the CSIS group that the country should be called Myanmar unless and until the people of Myanmar change the name in the future.

To download a copy of the complete report, go to;utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+CSIS+%28NEW+%40+CSIS.ORG%29

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