21 November 2014edge review

Sundown over the 20-lane highway that passes by Myanmar’s Parliament building in Naypyidaw. (Susan Lee/Flickr).

25th ASEAN Summit may be remembered as the point at which Myanmar’s political reforms died

The 25th ASEAN Summit, held in Myanmar’s sterile capital Naypyidaw last week, should have offered its government a chance to highlight positive economic and political changes in the country over the past few years. But President Thein Sein and his ministers were notably elusive, freezing the press out of the proceedings in an unprecedented way.

For a likely explanation, observers only had to wait a few days. On Tuesday, after world leaders and media had safely flown home, the government admitted that it was shelving major political reforms at least until 2016.

For the summit, the heads of government from all ten ASEAN states had been joined by the leaders of Japan, New Zealand, China, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia and the United States for the concurrent East Asia Summit.

More than 1,000 journalists turned up too. International summits are not exactly known for making life easy for the press, but access for local and international reporters last week hit new lows.

It is common practice for leaders to issue statements and field reporters’ questions after most closed-door meetings. Yet over the two-day summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was the only high-profile delegate to conduct a press conference.

Myanmar’s government was pointedly resolute in shunning the domestic press. In lieu of press conferences, an eerie female voice read out stilted, poorly written “press releases” devoid of any useful information over loudspeakers in the cavernous media tent pitched on a lawn outside the summit venue.

In closing remarks, Thein Sein did note progress on critical issues, including a long-debated code of conduct for the South China Sea and the implementation in 2015 of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). But his comments were an assembly of empty platitudes, and no questions were allowed.

Even seemingly low-hanging fruit – such as the announcement of a mysterious ASEAN Institute of Green Economy to be spearheaded by Myanmar – came and went without elaboration or a question-and-answer session, a missed opportunity for Naypyidaw to look good amid a barrage of criticism.

In freezing out the press, the government had seemingly calculated that a poorly judged quote from a well-placed official could further embarrass Myanmar’s fraught reform process.

In the run-up to the summit, foreign and domestic media had run articles admonishing Naypyidaw for recent backsliding on the slowdown in the political and economic reform process, a failure to amend problematic parts of the constitution that entrench military rule and brutal treatment of the stateless Rohingya. Earlier this month, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called Myanmar’s reform “stalled.”

At the summit’s only impromptu press conference, Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw half-apologized for the poor press access, unconvincingly claiming it could be chalked up to Myanmar’s inexperience at hosting summits. Contradicting himself, he added: “If Myanmar is slowing down in our reforms, how have we successfully [organized] an important summit?”

Although he spoke diplomatically, he also asserted plainly enough that criticism of the reform process was down to irresponsible journalism, not Naypyidaw’s governance. “There are ethics for every trade … Journalists have ethics, diplomats have ethics. I think we have to talk about what ethics we have to put on the issue [of reforms],” he said.

The questionable ethics of timing a government announcement of delays to reform hopes for this Tuesday, shortly after the world’s attention had moved on, seems not to have been a concern.

The announcement, by parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, revealed that no constitutional amendments would occur until after next year’s elections.

There have been long-running demands for amendments to Myanmar’s controversial 2008 constitution over its automatic allocation of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats to the military and its bar on Suu Kyi from running for the presidency due to the foreign citizenship of her sons and late husband.

Shwe Mann said a referendum on the amendments would be held next May, but that even if approved they could only be implemented in 2016 by a new government sworn in after nationwide polls likely to be next October or November.

While there is still an outside chance that Suu Kyi could become president in 2016 if reforms go through before parliament chooses the next president, her National League for Democracy party seems to have conceded that it is unrealistic.

“Calculate the ratio mathematically. We cannot win,” said Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Nyan Win, referring to the military’s effective veto in parliament.

Shwe Mann’s announcement reveals a path that is likely to betray further disrespect for democratic values. Postponing the possibility of reform throws the legitimacy of next year’s polls into question. This in turn raises the spectre of a political future that could look an awful lot like Myanmar’s repressive past.

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