Myanmar: Winds of Change

With Suu Kyi in parliament, how serious are prospects for reform?

L to R: John Bray, Khin Zaw Win, Mary Callahan and Ian Holliday in Hong Kong on June 20, 2012. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)

HONG KONG, June 20, 2012 — Myanmar's government has undergone more far-reaching changes in the last several months than in the 50 years since the regime's military coup. There is growing hope that the parliamentary debut of democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the suspension of ruinous sanctions will effectively transform Myanmar's political and economic landscape.

In a panel discussion to evaluate the direction and pace of reform in Myanmar, Asia Society Hong Kong Center was joined by John Bray, Director of Control Risks Group, Mary Callahan, Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, Khin Zaw Win, Director of the Tampadipa Institute, and moderator Ian Holliday, Professor of Politics at the University of Hong Kong.

"After half a century of isolation and neglect, this is the moment the country has been waiting for," stressed Win. Though the government is still dominated by male, ethnic majority, retired military officers, "the most significant shift is the emergence of a non-threatening political and economic realm," said Win, in addition to "an amazingly freer media."

According to Bray, Suu Kyi must now direct efforts to increase capacity, build institutions and develop skills to form an "enabling environment." The country "needs services, money and investment," he said, "and the international private sector can help with this."

U.S. sanctions are still in effect out of concern that investment would benefit the regime over the people, said Callahan, adding that "when Suu Kyi tells them they can lift sanctions, they will. But she has not given a clear indication." Foreign investors will be "quite powerful — what they do will affect how the people respond to them," said Bray, accentuating the need for sustainable and mutually beneficial international business relationships.

Suu Kyi also needs to reach out to ethnic minorities and promote national reconciliation, because "the process will live or die based on how ethnic conflict plays out," said Win. The military would be easily able to usurp power again if ethnic conflict is seen to become a matter of national security.

Though Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won almost all the seats in the recent by-election, the earliest they could come to power is after the 2015 national election. Callahan apprehensively noted that, "President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are both 67 with health problems. Around Thein Sein there are many who could take up his place. Around Suu Kyi there are no replacements."

Reported by Laura Mapstone

Video: Watch the complete program (55 min., 6 sec.)