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Myanmar's new president offers hope to some

By By GHENI PLATENBURG - SPECIAL TO THE VICTORIA ADVOCATE
Sept. 6, 2012 at 4:06 a.m.
Updated Sept. 10, 2012 at 4:10 a.m.


A new president offers new hope for Myanmar.

On March 30, 2011, U Thein Stein, president of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, delivered his inaugural speech to both chambers of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the union parliament.

In it, he outlined his government plan of action to move away from the country's almost 50 years of military rule and encourage individuals and unlawful organizations both inside and outside the country to accept the nation's seven-step Road Map to Democracy.

The speech was nothing short of "astonishing," said Lex Rieffel, an expert on Southeast Asia and a nonresident senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution.

"I don't know any analyst who predicted he would take that approach," said Rieffel, who has made eight trips to Myanmar since 1967.

The past year has brought evidence that the leader of the military-backed civilian government was not just all talk, Rieffel said.

Evidence of meaningful reform from the previous oppressive regime included beginning construction on the new Myitsone dam; getting rid of the official exchange rate, which was 200 times over value relative to the market rate; relaxation on media coverage; labor reforms; and the release of political prisoners and liberalized rules on freedom of assembly.

Talks also have started about a cease-fire between a Karen National Union and Myanmar government delegations.

In March, the Karen People Worldwide alliance said 167 people representing the views of a wide range of various community organizations and Karen ethnic organizations attended a four-day emergency meeting inside Karen State to call for peace in Myanmar and for national reconciliation toward the establishment of a federal union.

They "appealed to the international community, especially the European Union and the United States, to maintain pressure on the Burmese government until there is tangible political change for the Karen and for all the people of Myanmar," according to a media statement made by the alliance.

Talks of change have spurred some Burmese living outside the country to return, said Rieffel, who said he personally knows at least a half-dozen people who have considered moving back.

Meanwhile, other Karen, such as Dr. Gillian V. Kwi, of Port Lavaca, have no desire to go back for anything but to visit.

"I don't trust the government," Kwi said matter-of-factly.

In her opinion, the Myanmar government's newfound desire for change and togetherness is insincere and simply a ploy to attract foreign countries into doing business with them.

Whether the new Myanmar government has really changed or not, other countries are quickly buying into the idea of doing business with the once-shunned country.

Business giants General Electric, Chevron and even U.S. beverage company Coca-Cola are just a few of the companies that have announced intentions to do business with Myanmar.

The Atlanta-based beverage company will commence business operations for the first time in 60 years in Myanmar as soon as the U.S. issues a general license allowing American companies to invest in the country.

The U.S. and other western countries have imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar, which has one of the least-developed economies in the world, for its decades of repression under a military junta.

Myanmar's GDP stands at $42.953 billion and grows at an average rate of 2.9 percent annually.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's democratic leader and a recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, has been credited for democratic reforms in the country, which led to the lifting of sanctions by many western countries.

The interest in the country by the international business community could potentially transform Myanmar into the fastest-growing economy in Asia in the next 10 years. However, that effort could ultimately fail because of the lack of sustainable business ventures establishing in the country, said Rieffel.

Nevertheless, Myanmar continues to be a country in transition marred with an ongoing civil war between ethnic groups and the Burmese; communal violence between the Muslims and Buddhists; one of the worst-performing health-care systems in the world; and repeated United Nations human rights violations, including child labor, human trafficking and a lack of freedom of speech.

"Anybody claiming to know what the country is going to look like a year from now is delusional. It's unknowable. There's no track record and many things are changing," Rieffel said. "It is very complicated, messy and uncertain. But the trend is absolutely more positive than negative."

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