Thein Sein

President Thein Sein is slowly transforming Myanmar from a military dictatorship to a fledgling democracy, but for millions of Burmese without basic services, how much have the reforms really helped?

Thein Sein is currently visiting Australia as part of a broader re-engagement strategy. The former military man has put his neck on the line to transform regime-ruled Myanmar, previously known as Burma, from an impoverished nation isolated by decades of punitive sanctions to a country that is rapidly opening up to the outside world.

Under Thein Sein’s administration, the government has freed hundreds of political prisoners, including released Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, embarked on peace deals with ethnic minority groups and relaxed media censorship. To promote post-sanction Myanmar’s re-engagement with the outside world, Sein has toured Europe and hosted US President Barack Obama, and his country is set to chair the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 2014.

Many in Myanmar’s business community agree change is in the air — but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s a slow process transforming a 50-year old dictatorship into a vibrant capitalist democracy. As noted by chairman of Myanmar agricultural company Tropical Biotechnology, Ashok Murarka: “In a nation’s history 20 months is too short a period to notice real changes. So far we see only realignments of various views. These changes will be visible in a few more years.”

For William Aung, director at Yangon-based consultancy Thura Swiss, the most significant reforms to date include freedom of speech, relaxation of media censorship and the liberalisation of the economy. “Since the President took office there have been some economic reforms, such as allowing the formation of public companies, granting licence to private insurance companies and some privatisation of the military-controlled State Own Enterprises,” Aung said. “But the problem is the lack of skilled workers, adequate law and regulations to do the jobs. That is the major obstacle for Thein Sein’s administration.”

Thein Sein’s commitment to Myanmar’s reform process — and bringing military hardliners in the government along with him — demonstrates courage and leadership, says Eugene Quah, an Australian-born lawyer and one of the founders of the Australia-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, who lives in the economic capital of Yangon. “He was handed a mess and has had to tread a very fine line to move the country forward after decades of stagnation while balancing so many different stakeholder interests [both domestic and international],” Quah said.

But for many of Myanmar’s 60 million-strong population, the impacts of Thein Sein’s reforms are yet to be experienced; three out of four are without reliable access to electricity, according to World Bank statistics, and mobile phone penetration is around 3%.

“Until now I haven’t seen any positive impact on rural/poor people,” Aung said. “Many people from village are still poor and leaving their villages to go Yangon or neighbouring countries to look for jobs and a better future.”

“… all Myanmar citizens need to participate and help continue the reform process for future generations.”

Last month rice farmer Bar Lue was given his marching orders by local township authorities because he lives and works in the vicinity of the 2400-hectare Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) mega-project, a multibillion-dollar industrial zone and port project spearheaded as a joint venture by the Japanese and Myanmar governments, touted as a solution to the country’s infrastructure shortage. If completed, it will be south-east Asia’s largest economic zone.

Jared Bissinger, an economist and PhD student from Australia’s Macquarie University who is studying Myanmar’s economy, notes land confiscations are a common occurrence in modern-day Myanmar and could pose a major problems in the future development of the country. As Myanmar opens up for business, care needs to be taken to mitigate further human rights violations and to include communities in future negotiations.

In urban Myanmar, change is more visible. Streets are clogged with new cars following relaxation of import licences and taxes, Western brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi are replacing local beverages, and firms including KPMG and the UK’s Standard Chartered Bank have offices in downtown Yangon. A Hilton hotel is tipped to open next year, a Novatel is being built at the edge of Yangon, and 91 telecoms companies have expressed interest in bidding for two mobile licences as the Myanmar government moves to liberalise its telecommunications sector.

Since the President took office and got the ball rolling on the reform process, a myriad punitive sanctions have been eased against Myanmar. Australia has rewarded the Thein Sein’s efforts by abolishing sanctions, stepping up its aid commitments and encouraging trade relationships. An Australia-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce has been founded, and Australian firms including mega energy firm Woodside Petroleum are preparing for their Myanmar play.

While the President’s three-day visit is tipped to focus more on government-to-government relations than engagement with Australia’s private sector, for Myanmar, having Australia onside as its geographically closest Western ally is an important part of building its ASEAN and Pacific alliances. But the ongoing ethnic conflicts in the northern Kachin and western Rakhine states remain a sore point  for the government, and it’s expected that human rights concerns will be on the agenda during his Australia visit.

While the President’s reforms are a step in the right direction, the actions of his party aren’t enough, says Aung. “Not only Thein Sein nor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can change the country, but all Myanmar citizens need to participate and help continue the reform process for future generations,” he said.

*Victoria Bruce is the senior reporter at M-ZINE+, a Myanmar-based business magazine