Myanmar needs peace with ethnic rebels

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 12:20am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 1:58pm

The economic and political reforms Myanmar's President Thein Sein began implementing two years ago have had a dramatic effect on the poverty stricken nation of 60 million people. With most Western sanctions removed, multinationals are starting to take advantage of the riches of Asia's last frontier market. Roads in the commercial cities of Yangon and Mandalay are chock-a-block with vehicles, a construction boom centred on hotels and offices is under way and foreigners abound. A recent series of small bomb blasts that have killed three people and injured 10, an American woman among them, are therefore deeply worrying.

Who is behind the attacks remains unclear. Small blasts were frequent during the almost half century of military rule, but have been rare since the government began opening the economy, freeing political prisoners and introducing democracy. Authorities have made peace deals with ethnic and religious groups a priority and aim for a national ceasefire by the end of the year. Yet for all the progress, significant challenges remain. Many Myanmese distrust the military, some doubt the sincerity of Thein Sein and other former generals who remain in positions of authority, and there are repeated outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims.

The American was hurt by a bomb in the room of her hotel, one of the most upscale in Yangon. There could be no more sensitive time for such an attack; authorities pin their hopes on tourism to drive the economy. Myanmar hosts the Southeast Asian Games in December and, as the 2014 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian nations, it will hold the grouping's annual events. Authorities have urged the country's people and potential tourists and investors not to overreact, contending that the perpetrators are trying to derail progress by creating instability. They are right to warn against overblowing the threat, but finding the attackers is only part of the job. There can be no stability unless peace is made with ethnic rebels. Without stability, there is no chance of sustained development.