somphoneA personal reflection from my visit to Myanmar (19-24 October 2009).

By Sombath Somphone


The military junta in Myanmar? is not much different from the Lao People?s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) in its first 15 years after coming into power in 1975.  In those years, it was obsessed with maintaining stability and power militarily, politically, socially, and economically over all aspects of the Lao society.  However, the LPRP in late 1980s and early 1990s realized that its policies to build a planned centralized economy were not working ? production and trade were sluggish; social progress was slow, and people?s living standards were low.  Some of the leaders realized that the country needed greater economic growth and social development in order for the Party to continue its rule.  Its leaders had learned from Russia?s experience of ?Glasnost? and China?s post-Mao era of economic reforms under Deng Xiao Peng and decided to change its course from a centrally planned economy to a market economy ? slowly at the beginning and faster as the Party gained confidence that it can pursue economic growth without giving up its political power and military control.  Like its Chinese and Vietnamese neighbors, the Lao leaders learned that it can open the economy in a ?controlled? manner, by starting with the Party allowing some level of relaxation of the economy particularly through people who are loyal to them, which means to members of their families and clan, and then later extend that to members of the urban elite and business entrepreneurs who have business knowledge and experience.

As a result of the gradual opening to the market economy, many Lao, especially those in the urban areas and peri-urban areas, are able to benefit from the positive impact of more rapid economic development and see their lives improve over the last ten years.  The government also started to invest more in infrastructure development, especially in the cities and towns, and also allow more and more foreign investments.

With the economy growing at a steady pace, and with no threat in sight to the Party?s rule, the Government also began to accept some advice from the international organizations, bilateral governments, and ASEAN, in the areas of governance reform, legal reform, and civil service reform, etc.  The Government quickly realized that agreement to such reforms often result in greater development assistance and foreign investments, as well as international ?praise?.  However, everybody inside and outside the country also know that many of such reforms are slow and are often more ?rhetorical than real?.

The military junta of Myanmar is also showing clear signs of embracing the market economy.   But it also wants to have monopoly over economic development. Ironically, international sanctions by the west, especially the US, only gives the military leaders greater opportunities to strengthen its political and economic hold over the country?s national wealth and resources. It is evident that while ordinary Burmese live in greater and greater economic deprivation and hardships as a result of the international sanctions, the military leaders continue to become more and more wealthy.

Historically, for most ruling parties to be strong, they usually need some form of alliances and support from at least some, if not all, of its multi-ethnic groups.  However, this does not seem to be so in the case of Myanmar, where the military junta continues to distrust and suppress its ethnic and religious minorities.  In the case of Myanmar, the lack of trust between the different ethnic groups also seems to be a major barrier to progress of real federalization and nation building.  The military junta is probably trying to build alliances with some groups, but external and internal interferences make this difficult and continue to undermine inter-ethnic and inter-faith trust.

The question is how can Myanmar develop trust and share both power and wealth among the different ethnic and religious groups?   How do people chart a road map for peaceful nation building?   Who can be the facilitators?

During my first-ever 5-day visit to this beautiful and very rich land, I recognized two potential institutions that can play the role as facilitators and peace-builders.  They are the faith-based organizations and the civil society groups.  The people running these institutions, at least the ones I met, are very intelligent, hard working, and committed to social justice and sustainable development.  They are doing very good work already, and in the best way they can.  Some of them have gained the trust and confidence from the government authorities in their local areas. To scale up these efforts, the groups will need facilitators to connect these institutions and to have a system of sharing and learning.  And secondly, for many of the donor organizations inside and outside Burma, they will also need facilitators to coordinate and network among them so that they can channel more resources to support the initiatives of the local civil society groups and networks. Third, there is need to look for positive elements in the policies of the ruling junta and  help implement these positive elements to demonstrate success, reduce fear, and build trust of all groups.   They can start small and be built up slowly to gain more and more trust and confidence among all partners.    This approach should be applied in all sectors of development – social, environmental, economic, and political.  Success in one dimension will have positive impact in another dimension, and these successes will multiply and gain momentum.

It is encouraging to see that there are already many good examples of cooperation between groups working together in development projects or in building peace. In this respect, more efforts are needed to document and disseminate the success stories of such development and inter-faith and inter-ethnic peace building initiatives.  These success stories and experiences need to be shared more widely within and outside the country.

As an external NGO, SEM is playing a strategic facilitation role in fostering and preparing individuals from local faith-based and civil society groups in inter-faith and inter-ethnic social engagement and sustainable community development.  As the space for social participation and engagement opens up, these groups will be well prepared to contribute to shaping the development of the country.  I have great hopes that the commitment and efforts of the civil society groups in Myanmar will pay off in the not too distant future.

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