Two years after last visiting Yangon, the first thing one notices is the frenzy of construction.
The steamy city, perched on a swampy delta and home to more than 5.5 million people, is a building site. Roads, footpaths, buildings and whole city blocks have been demolished.
Apartment blocks are rising ever higher, and a bevy of new five- and four-star hotels are springing up apace in an effort to keep up with demand from waves of eager starters in the ongoing — but still nascent — business gold rush and a booming tourist sector.
There’s certainly no mistaking that change is surging through the country. In the past month there have been plenty of negative press reports that reform is slowing down, as Myanmar burst into the international spotlight, with American President Barack Obama attending the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. But it’s more that outsized, unrealistic expectations are coming back to Earth. Business folk say things are continuing to move along — although so do dates for key reforms.
During the ASEAN summit Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in one of his rare offshore wins, was one of the few leaders to meet with Myanmar’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
While her National League for Democracy party is widely tipped to top next year’s polls, parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, the effective prime minister and the man penciled in to take the reins from President Thein Sein at the next election, has ruled out changing the country’s constitution to allow Suu Kyi to run for president. She has already stepped back from her previous hard-line position . But Yangon is awash with rumours that she may settle for being speaker to Shwe Mann’s president. Shwe Mann said that there would be a referendum in May to make some changes to the constitution, but he did not make it clear what they would be.
Many continue to wonder whether former military chief General Than Shwe is continuing to pull the strings behind the scenes. Like much behind the nation’s khaki curtain, no one really knows, but it’s something of a red herring in any case. What’s certain is that Myanmar’s rulers are executing a meticulously planned strategy that was born 25 years ago in the aftermath of the 1988 riots and 1990 elections, which were quickly followed by Than Shwe’s coup, which ushered in two more decades of increasing isolation and the collapse of Myanmar’s economy and infrastructure.
In recent months the army chiefs have been more vocal about getting more power, not less. Whether this is real stoush with the government or part of the cunning plan, again, no one knows for sure. Fear, confusion and doubt are being sown ahead of next year’s poll.
There are two major unanswered questions facing the country as it prepares for next year’s elections. One is the voting system, at present a straight representative system and an Australia-like Senate, which has 12 representatives for each of the 14 states and provinces enshrined in the constitution. The government has mulled a system of proportional representation, but that was all but thrown out last Friday by Shwe Mann. A consolation prize perhaps for Suu Kyi, who was dead against such a move.
And there’s the even more vexed issue of a national ceasefire with myriad ethic armies. This appeared to be within sight last year, but now the military continues to battle forces, reported widely to be backed by China, in Kachin State in the north. The government’s pretence of peace in other regions, such as Shan State, is a fiction. Myanmar has a bewildering 135 different ethnic groups; the major ones want a proper federation of semi-autonomous, but this appears to be a pipe dream at present.
On top of it all is the conflict between the Muslim Rohingyas and local Buddhists in Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, already disposed, now occupy of disease-ridden camps. This sectarian conflict that has pervaded the entire country and exposed a dark side of the place, which is between 4-10% Muslims. It certainly puts Australia’s refugee “crisis” into perspective.
Still, Australia, to its credit, under successive governments — including the incumbent — has continued to punch above its weight in Myanmar. In an environment where aid budgets are being hacked back in Canberra, Australia is boosting its aid to Myanmar, from $84.5 million in 2012-2013 to an estimated $90 million in 2014-2015. It’s money that, unlike the egregious refugee resettlement payment to Cambodia, appears to be well targeted and spent on behalf of taxpayers.
It also to the PM’s — and sure-footed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s — credit that under the Coalition government Australia has continued its strong support of Myanmar.
Whether Australia will continue to push depends upon whether the Abbott government wants to apply its stated foreign policy strategy of being politically more hands-off and more focused on the narrower, more limited, goals of trade and economics and education. While there is at least still some hope room of influencing the direction of Myanmar’s reform trajectory, it should most definitely not.
It will be telling to see who is appointed as Australia’s new ambassador to replace incumbent Bronte Moules, who is finishing a widely lauded stint. People say her quietly determined influence will be missed.
As Obama put it so pithily when he met Suu Kyi last week, reform is “neither complete or irreversible”.
Myanmar’s reforms are, indeed, very far from complete. While an enormous amount has happened, the same group that ran the country as one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships for more than four decades remains firmly in charge.