Thein Sein

One small step towards reform

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 3:09am

To Myanmar's leaders, the brief visit yesterday of US President Barack Obama was a reward for their fast-paced political and economic reforms. For Americans, it was tangible proof of a promised return to the Asian region to counter the rising influence of China. It was ground-breaking - no US commander-in-chief has been to the poverty-stricken country before. But the visit should not be seen as being about superlatives, celebration or victory; rather, it has to be viewed as a push towards even more meaningful changes.

Obama made that point in his speech at the University of Yangon. While praising Myanmar's President Thein Sein for initiating reforms that after half a century of military rule have opened up politics, allowed free speech and improved the climate for trade and investment, he also acknowledged that much work remains. The dilapidated university campus, where movements against British colonial rule and the junta began, shone a spotlight on a long-neglected area - education. It is just one of the many results of decades of misrule that need to be corrected, though; health care is rudimentary, infrastructure basic, corruption runs deep and ethnic minorities neglected.

Then there are concerns that while the government has made pledges, it is not truly committed to reform. Democratic elections were held in April that put Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her party in parliament, but the constitution still reserves a quarter of its seats for the military and hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail. The government prosecutes wars against its own people, such as the ethnic Kachin, and has done little to stop sectarian violence in Rakhine state against the Muslim-majority Rohingya. Improving the lives of its people involves more than just a few high-profile policy shifts.

Obama's meeting with fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi at the home where she had long been under house arrest, was once unimaginable. The country's leaders have won praise for their reforms. But the plaudits are encouragement, not acceptance.