Myanmar in Transition

March 3, 2016

It’s been four months since the November elections in Myanmar that set the stage to hand over power from the largely military government to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by long-time pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Expectations are high as the people of Myanmar and the world look on to observe the transition of power. This was the topic of a recent panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington, D.C. entitled Myanmar’s Burden of High Expectations facilitated by Vikram Nehru. The entire talk is available here:

The panelists included Mary Callahan, associate professor at the University of Washington, U Aung Din, founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma and senior adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative, and Christina Fink, professor of practice at The George Washington University. I’ve gotten to know Dr. Fink through Chiang Mai connections. She has written extensively on Myanmar, including the 2009 book Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule, which I was glad to see a couple copies of in the Chiang Mai airport during my last trip.

Here are a few takeaways from the panel:

Mary Callahan shared the “serious pent up grievances” of common people like taxi drivers (amazingly she said she takes around 8 per day.) Her five issues to watch include 1) the dam decision, which she thinks will be delayed even further creating more tension with China; 2) military retirements; 3) the peace process, and whether it will be delayed or not; 4) important land issues; and, 5) the unfolding of the promise of more inclusive economic growth, which many people have yet to feel in their daily lives.

U Aung Din–a former political prisoner in Myanmar who fled the country upon his release–talked about the continual involvement of the military and problems in the judicial system which is “weak, poor, and corrupt.” In spite of challenges like this, Mr. Aung Din was confident that the Burmese people will be able to move forward.

Christina Fink at Carnegie Endowment

Christina Fink talked about the NLD’s competence to run the government, the relationship of the NLD and the military, and ethnic inclusion. The situation regarding ethnic inclusion is incredibly fragile. Only one ethnic parliamentarian from Rakhine State was elected in November. Some ethnic leaders believe the NLD should not have campaigned in those states, which might have allowed more ethic leaders to serve in government.

Throughout the whole talk, a notable tension was the difficult place of Aung San Suu Kyi. On the one hand, she is seeking to change the constitution, especially the controversial Article 59 (f), which is an affront to the military. On the other hand she must work effectively with the military in the government transition and the peace process.

Overall, the talk was enlightening and important as we think about this transition. All the panelists are inspirational for me as I consider living a meaningful life as an academic and activist for social change in Southeast Asia and throughout the world.

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