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Real reform in Burma an uphill task, activists say

Originally appeared in The Nation

March 9, 2012

Despite the dramatic changes in Burma, many obstacles are in the way of true reforms that benefit ordinary people, Burmese academics and activists said yesterday.

Speaking at a seminar hosted by Chiang Mai University’s Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development, they said President Thein Sein’s government in Burma faced many challenges.

On the economic front, transparency and corruption posed major problems in economic management, said Payap University economist Thein Swe.

Other key economic issues the government will have to tackle include inflation and the unification of exchange-rate regimes for the kyat currency, he said. Economic reforms would have to tackle poverty, he said, as he questioned the government’s ability to address poverty while continuing to allocate vast sums to the military.

On the political front, activist Aung Naing Oo, deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, said Burma needed to enforce genuine rule of law. The military-sponsored 2008 Constitution was just an experiment, without any real sense of the supremacy of law, he said.

The charter gave too dominant a role to the military in the political system, he said, adding that the administrative and executive branches badly needed checks and balances. The bureaucracy was plagued with incapacity, lacked exposure and clung to an outdated culture, the activist warned.

The government relies on top-down decision-making and its policies were inconsistent, Aung Naing Oo said, adding that conflicts between the military and ethnic minorities was another major challenge.

Activist Khin Omar of the Burma Partnership said effects of the reforms in Burma had yet to be felt as many fundamental problems remained. For instance, more than 800 political prisoners are still in jail, she said.

The government had reached peace deals with many ethnic minorities, but fighting is still going on, she said.

The government had given the media a degree of freedom, but the draconian media law remained in force, authorising officials to censor the media whenever they wished, she said.

She added that the reforms had yet to touch upon the military, as the armed forces retain their “extraordinary” status and continue to wield the actual decision-making power. “The reform is in fact a military-led reform without the people’s participation,” she said. Institutions and legislation remained unchanged, she said. “The regime just made some changes to protect its interests.”

The reforms had given a boost to the military-dominated regime’s international image and legitimacy, and Western nations were on track to lift sanctions, she said.

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