Tough road to democracy

16:00, Feb 07 2013

New Zealand's future relationship with Myanmar depends on helping that country's move to democracy now, argues Labour foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff , who has just returned from a visit there. 

When I was foreign affairs and trade minister, I made the decision not to visit Myanmar, as Burma is now known.

The repressive military dictatorship that had suppressed democracy and led the country into isolation, poverty and backwardness seemed immune to pressure or inducement to change.

Yet, in the past two years, a quasi-civilian government installed by military strongman, Than Shwe, appears to be taking the country in a more liberal and modern direction.

I visited Myanmar to try to learn how real the change was and what role New Zealand might play in helping the emergence of a successful and democratic Burma.

On the streets of Yangon, change is obvious. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democracy movement, has not only been freed from house arrest but her influence appeared pervasive.


United States President Barack Obama recently met her and people speak freely about the "lady" as she is affectionately called. In the relatively fair by-elections last year, her National League for Democracy Party won 43 of the 45 seats up for election.

The opening up of Myanmar economically was visually evident in the second-hand Japanese cars clogging the roads. As we navigated the traffic jams, our guide ruefully explained the number of new cars on the road had doubled in the past year.

People we spoke to were optimistic about the future.

Myanmar could once again become the rice-bowl of Asia and close the gap in living standards with neighbours such as Thailand. Rich in oil, gas and minerals, and sitting on the crossroads of India, China and Southeast Asia, Myanmar will have no shortage of foreign interests wanting to lend a hand in its development and modernisation.

Yet the scale of what has to be done, given the many obstacles, is daunting.

The big question is whether the business and military interests that stand behind the government of President Thein Sein actually want or are prepared to accept a real transition to democracy.

The government is reforming but has little power or mandate for its changes. It has done well in winning international legitimacy, having economic sanctions lifted and gaining access to aid, loans and investment.

That, however, has not translated to popular voting support, for the military installed USDP Government.

If an election were held now, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party (NLD) would win overwhelming support. With an election set for 2015, will those who control power be prepared to see that power pass to an elected popular government?

Will the military be prepared to allow a democratic government make real and necessary concessions to the ethnic minority groups with whom they have been in conflict for 50 years?

The escalation of war with the Kachin rebels is a consequence of military rather than political decisions and raises doubts about who is calling the shots.

Myanmar has no tradition of democracy or the political context that enabled countries in Eastern Europe to successfully transition to democracy.

Nor does it have the strong national-security reason that pushed South Korea and Taiwan to establish democratic institutions and process.

It lacks the strong middle class and strong civil society that are often seen as necessary prerequisites for democracy to succeed.

The NLD has not yet shown the level of cohesion, unity, sense of purpose or the strategic and organisational capability to ensure its success. Many people commented to us on its lack of policy development and raised doubts over its unity.

Its future hangs on the slender thread of Aung San Suu Kyi, who alone has the profile and popularity to ensure its success.

While resource rich, Myanmar lacks infrastructure and a competent bureaucracy. Corruption is widespread; vested interests are powerful.

Development is held back by low education and skill levels and a lack of domestic capital for investment.

Change can rarely be imposed from outside a country but the international community and New Zealand can do things to improve the prospects of Myanmar becoming a modern, peaceful and democratic country.

Despite our small size, New Zealand can play a role in helping Myanmar's development and strengthening its civil society. Opening an embassy there and lifting our engagement in its political, social and economic development are important.

Our relationship, including trade, will depend on the genuine efforts we make now to help its people towards a better future.

One example is the work being done through the International Labour Organisation by former New Zealand Employers' Federation leader Steve Marshall and former union leader Ross Wilson in promoting good labour law and freedom of association.

Another is the programme organised by UnionAID, which has brought young people from Myanmar to New Zealand each year. They attend Victoria University where they study English and attend a programme tailored especially for them on development studies, democracy and human rights.

I took part in a similar scheme, funded by the Netherlands government, having interns from Myanmar working in my electorate office. They gained practical experience in how democracy and the rule of law work and human rights upheld.

The UnionAID programme has been very successful. The students have returned from New Zealand to take up positions of responsibility and share the knowledge they have learned.

I met some of New Zealand's 23 student alumni in Yangon. One has become an economic adviser to government. Others are leaders and trainers in their organisations.

Two were journalists and two members from small ethnic parties. All have returned to Myanmar keen to make a difference in their country's development and democracy.

The students have kept in contact with the Kiwis who hosted and taught them and are working to make an effective contribution to their country's future.

Funding for the programme was originally agreed to under Labour and maintained under National. Funding has not yet been confirmed for the programme to continue, though Prime Minister John Key during his recent visit there stated his support for it.

I would urge the New Zealand Government to continue and broaden its support for the programme and for other capacity building. This is one of the most effective ways we can contribute practically to the success of Burmese democracy and development.

After years in which there was no sense of hope that Myanmar could change, it is vital that now there is that opportunity New Zealand does everything it can to assist that process.

The Dominion Post