Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow

Lord Michael Williams has just returned from a visit to Burma where he detected real signs of hope for the future after decades of economic and political stagnation under a military junta.

This was my fourth visit to Burma and the first when I came away with any hope. Successively, I have visited Burma for the BBC World Service, the UN, and the Foreign Office and latterly for Chatham House.

My first visit in 1989 was in the shadow of the military’s brutal suppression of the 1988 student revolt. Brave Burmese whom I met faced subsequent harassment and in one case imprisonment after my visit. More recently in 2008 I visited a Burma savaged by Cyclone Nargis, the country’s worst natural disaster which claimed an estimated 140,000 lives. Terrible though the tragedy was, it may well have been a turning point in modern Burmese history - forcing a reluctant and harsh regime to recognize that it could not cope given the scale of the disaster and desperately needed international assistance.

Burma remains one of the poorest countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) but for the first time in quarter of a century there is real hope. The dialogue between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, the sweeping victories in recent elections of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), and the constant trail of foreign visitors underline that. The most recent in that regard being Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, whose presence stressed that Delhi was determined not to allow China, the United States and the EU to  dominate Burma’s foreign relations.

The by-elections on 1 April, described by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as 'a dramatic demonstration of popular will', are perhaps one of the most important milestones in recent reforms. Observed by monitors from ASEAN, the EU, US, Canada and Australia, Daw Suu Kyi’s NLD succeeded in winning 43 of the 46 seats at stake. One of the NLD's successful candidates was Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Equally remarkable has been the willingness of President Thein Sein, and apparently the army, not only to allow the release of Suu Kyi but also to accept that she is now the international face of Burma. Her current European trip is proof of that. 

But Suu Kyi also needs in due course to pay attention to Burma’s neighbours and above all, ASEAN. Her first overseas visit to Thailand to attend the World Economic Forum’s Asia gathering ruffled some feathers in the protocol conscious Thai foreign ministry, who were unhappy not least because her visit prompted President Thein Sein to withdraw from the WEF meeting. It will also be important at some stage to court China, the dominant economic player in Burma,  and likely to be so for some time.

Promising though recent developments have been, the outbreak of communal violence in the western province of Rakhine highlights one of the most pressing issues on the reform agenda, the treatment of Burma’s minorities. If not addressed, the minority issue could rise in importance and potentially scare the military-dominated government from the reformist path it has apparently taken. There are already promising reports of progress towards a ceasefire with the Kachen insurgents in the north. Thein Sein himself warned after this month’s violence affecting the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine, which led to more than fifty deaths and tens of thousands of displaced, that it could undermine the reform process. Minorities were poorly integrated in imperial Burma and have fared little better in the post-colonial state.  Bangladesh, which closed its borders to further refugees, is already home to more than 200,000 Rohingyas.  As for the army itself the vast majority of its members are ethnically Burman and Buddhist. 

So far President Thein Sein has presented an accommodating stance towards Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. The Electoral Law, but not the parliamentary oath, were changed to allow for NLD participation in April’s elections. But the constitution adopted in a referendum in 2008 remains far from democratic. Above all it entrenches the position of the military in both houses of parliament with an allocation of 25% of the seats. The NLD has pledged to push for reform of the constitution. 

There is no doubt that President Thein Sein will agree to further reforms. In a national address on 19 June, seemingly timed to coincide with Aung San Suu Kyi’s presence in London, he announced a series of economic reforms including a significant downsizing of the role of the state in the economy. Repeal of the constitution might be a step too far for the President and one which might threaten his own control of the army. At the same time the reforms have now gone so far that a reversal would be difficult and alienate not only Western countries but also its fellow ASEAN members.

Further Resources

Burma: Watch and Wait
Expert Comment
Gareth Price, April 2012 

Burma: Time for Change?
Programme Paper
Gareth Price, December 2011