Amidst startling political changes, including historic reforms led by President Thein Sein and the election to parliament of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar is shedding its authoritarian image and emerging from decades of international isolation.
But just how firmly rooted are the changes and what can the outside world do to help Myanmar and its current reform-minded leadership to keep up the momentum?
These are questions on the mind of many in the international community, among them the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar. The former Indian national security adviser and Chief of Staff to the Secretary-General leads the UN’s diplomatic “good offices” efforts to support reform and development in the South Asian country.
In an interview with DPA E-News, Nambiar voiced cautious optimism about the changes afoot in Myanmar and discussed how the UN role may evolve in the period ahead to help spur further reform and development.
Video: Excerpts of the interview with Special Adviser Vijay Nambiar
“Some say it is irreversible, however it is still a fragile process, there is much that can go wrong," he said. "But I think there is a determined sense on both sides -- the side of President Thein Sein and the government and of some of the leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi on the opposition side -- to make this work in order to see that you have a truly democratic progress."
"Like all democracies it is a work in progress and there are many things that need to be done,” Nambiar added.
The Myanmar envoy spoke on the eve of his most recent visit to the country, one that underscored the complexities as well as the promise of the current moment in Myanmar. Not long after arrival in Yangon, Nambiar was thrust into efforts to calm inter-ethnic and religious tensions and violence that had erupted in Rakhine State, near the country's border with Bangladesh.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre) participates in a census event with Myanmar Vice-President, Sai Mauk Kham (second from right), in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, April 2012. With Mr. Ban are his wife, Yoo Soon-taek, and his Special Adviser for Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar (second from left).
He travelled in the area of unrest by helicopter along with Myanmar’s Minister of Border Affairs, meeting with leaders, pledging UN humanitarian aid and commending government efforts to quell the violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities. He spoke with persons displaced by the violence, Buddhist monks in the monasteries and heard from villagers belonging to the Islamic faith. In a statement to the press, Nambiar welcomed the government’s even-handed response, including a speech by President Thein Sein, which he said had demonstrated the desire of the government to continue the reform process.
Only two years ago, says Nambiar, the November 2010 election and the adoption, following Cyclone Nargis, of a new constitution by referendum – all part of a lengthy seven-step roadmap to transition led by Myanmar’s military – were moves met with a degree of scepticism by many both inside and outside the country. Leading democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi considered the country still “a sham democracy,” he recalled.
But her release, after many years of house arrest, followed by that of a large number of the country’s political prisoners, helped her test the country's newfound openness. Making renewed contact with her people at the grassroots level, and, especially after a groundbreaking meeting with the country’s President Thein Sein, she agreed to run in the by-elections in April of this year after the electoral laws were amended to permit her and her party to do so. Her National League for Democracy party swept 44 of 48 seats in the by-election for Myanmar’s parliament. Laws on media censorship and freedom of association were also partially relaxed, among a series of important changes.
Regional and western governments have responded, making high-level visits to the country and lifting or suspending sanctions on Myanmar that had been in place for many years. The decision of the regional organization of Southeast Asian states, ASEAN, to name Myanmar to its presidency in 2014, was another sign of normalization of the country’s international standing.
In April 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon travelled to Myanmar, his third visit to the country as UN Chief, following earlier visits under different circumstances. He strongly welcomed the democratic changes and ongoing national reconciliation and peace efforts, while using the opportunity to encourage business investment in Myanmar and announce plans to increase UN support in a number of areas.
The Secretary-General announced the UN would be normalizing its development program in the country, helping Myanmar carry out a much-needed national census, strengthening drug eradication programs, and offering support in electoral andgovernance reforms. Nambiar says reconciliation will also remain a focus, noting that Myanmar may welcome some degree of international involvement in supporting the resolution of decades-old conflicts between the government and armed ethnic groups.
Analysts debate what, in the end, produced the changes that had long eluded Myanmar, where a military junta took power after voiding the results of the last elections in 1990.
Nambiar attributes it to a number of factors, but especially a desire by the country's long ruling generals to emerge from isolation and return to respectability in the region. The devastation from Cyclone Nargis in 2008 also exposed the country’s depths of underdevelopment, serving as a wakeup call that Myanmar could not stay further behind.
“I think there is a genuine commitment to improving both the standards of living and the livelihood inside Myanmar as well as to opening up society as a whole,” Nambiar said.
“Whereas other countries like Laos and Cambodia have been getting almost four or five times as much development assistance as Myanmar, Myanmar has not been able to benefit from some of these kinds of relationships with the outside world... and that has affected its own basic development. Living in isolation from the international community can have a major impact in terms of quality of life for its own people.”
Nambiar says the prospect of being able to chair the ASEAN and host the 2014 ASEAN summit was an important attraction for the military to speed up its transition.
As Myanmar changes, Nambiar sees the UN good offices role likely to evolve along with it.
The mandate was established by the General Assembly with a focus on pressing Myanmar for democratic reforms. Some of the focus on reforms may still be needed, he said, but it could come less in the form of "strident demanding" than supportive encouragement to help ensure that the reform project succeeds and does not slip backward. The three main pillars of UN support today, he explained, are in the areas of democracy, humanitarian assistance and development.
“There has to be occasional pressure, but there has to be patience,” he said.
Among the political challenges ahead, the country still holds political prisoners, Nambiar said, and will require assistance with legislative reforms, promoting the rule of law and the strengthening of human rights institutions and the establishment of a democratic political culture.
“Even if there is a functioning parliament and a constitution, there are serious issues of political reform that need to be addressed,” he said. “It remains to be seen how this process develops. It's fragile, but I think it is encouraging.”