How real are Myanmar's reforms?

Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar has sparked both international interest and scepticism.

In Myanmar, millions of people live in poverty. Picture: Supplied

Millions live in poverty

Long-standing ethnic conflict

Power struggles in ruling party

Real reforms or "window dressing"

LONDON - The visit of US President Barack Obama to Myanmar on 19 November has renewed international interest in the country's democratic reforms, but also scepticism about their impact on the lives of ordinary Burmese.

Since Myanmar's reform-minded President Thein Sein came to office in March 2011, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, freedom of assembly has been allowed, media censorship has eased, and the country's cabinet has been reshuffled.

"Ministers regarded as conservative or underperforming were moved aside, and many new deputy ministers appointed. There are now more technocrats in these positions, and the country has its first female minister," Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN.

But analysts and observers argue that economic hardship, ongoing ethnic conflicts and a history of media censorship will prove more serious challenges to reform in this former pariah state.

According to an ICG report entitled Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, much of the government's attention will need to be focused on controlling the country's multiple internal ethnic conflicts - a real threat to national stability.

"Containing and resolving the inter-communal conflict that has engulfed Rakhine State, and reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State, are the government's main immediate problems," said the 12 November report.

ECONOMIC HARDSHIP

While the headline-grabbing democratic reforms are welcome, resulting in millions of dollars in international development and humanitarian assistance, many believe they fail to address the economic hardships of Myanmar's 58 million people.

Maung Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a fellow at the London School of Economics, says Thein Sein's reforms "are largely geared towards creating a `late developmental state' along the lines of Vietnam and China… Sadly, the West and the rest alike are choosing to overlook the apparent pitfalls of Myanmar's reforms, ignoring the cries of the wretched of a new Myanmar."

Sein Win, managing editor of New Delhi-based Mizzima News, (founded by Myanmar exiles), agrees. "Change is happening in the upper levels of government... but the lives of the people are largely the same as before," he said.

And while there are high hopes that the recent easing of international sanctions will change things, Myanmar remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.

Ordinary people see little tangible improvement in their day-to-day lives, and inflation is having an adverse effect on the lives of many Burmese.

According to the UN's most recent Integrated Household Living Conditions Assessment, the average proportion of total household budget spent on food is 68 percent (74 percent for the poorest 30 percent of the population).

Almost one third of the country's population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, which recently approved a US$245 million development package to the country

"We want the people of Myanmar and the poor in particular to see the reform can lead to real benefits," said Kanthan Shankar, the World Bank's country manager for Myanmar.

INTERNAL CONFLICT

But the path to reform will be difficult given long-standing ethnic conflicts, many of which date back to independence from Britain in 1948, analysts say.

While the government over the past year has forged a number of tentative ceasefire agreements with many non-state armed groups which have been fighting for greater autonomy in the east, fighting in Myanmar's northern Kachin State between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), continues unabated.

Since the collapse of a 17-year-old ceasefire in June 2011, some 75,000 people have been displaced and humanitarian needs are growing, reports the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

At the same time, more than 100,000 people, nearly all Rohingyas, have been displaced in western Rakhine State, after inter-communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted in June.

The conflict is a major test for the Thein Sein government, say activists, who are calling on Obama to make it clear that the attacks on the Rohingya need to stop if the government wants to avoid renewed international sanctions.

"This is crunch time because Burma's failure to contain sectarian violence in Arakan [Rakhine] State and hold accountable those responsible calls into question the Burmese government's stated goal of becoming a rights-respecting, multi-ethnic state," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

According to HRW, Burmese security forces have restricted the access of international humanitarian agencies to the area, while aid workers say international donors are failing to deliver.