Waiting for Reform to Hit the Streets

By Hpyo Wai Tha 4 September 2012

RANGOON—It is long walk through a warren of backstreets to get to the nearest bus stop. There is no running water and no garbage collection service. Hla Shwe seems to live in a world away from public utilities even though he resides in an area only a few minutes’ drive from the bustling downtown of Burma’s former capital, which remains the main business hub.

Until now, his neighborhood seems like a microcosm of a society untouched by President Thein Sein’s restructuring process. It has been 17 months since the former general took office and launched radical reform plans ostensibly for the good of people.

However, while Thein Sein embarked on a series of cabinet changes late last month—a move widely considered as a major boost to the democratic transition—it raises questions whether the shakeup would bring any economic or social improvement to the 80 percent of Burmese who still live below the poverty line.

When The Irrawaddy asked a middle-aged man in the area about the reshuffle, he replied “so what?”

Indeed, news of the ministerial merry-go-round got a low-key reception in Hla Shwe’s neighborhood where most people are unemployed and instead try their luck on an illegal two-digit lottery. They are more interested in the winning number of the day than new faces in the cabinet.

“People here don’t care about who’s who in the new cabinet or what is happening in Parliament. They are too busy trying to make ends meet,” said the 75-year-old, a few days after the president announced 30 ministerial positions were being reshuffled.

Veteran politician Chan Tun, a former Burmese ambassador to China, said real reform means a better life for ordinary people and a shakeup only at the top ministerial level would not work alone.

“If you want to see improvements at the grassroots level, you also need to make changes in township or village-level authorities if needed,” said the 91-year-old, pointing out the rampant corruption among authorities in granting agricultural subsidies to farmers.

“Corrupt servicemen make a government weak,” he added. “A weak government will do more harm than good to its people.”

Thu Wai, chairman of the Democratic Party Myanmar (DPM), believes that conservative and reformist divisions in the government make substantive change difficult.

“If a junior officer dares to ignore the president’s order, it’s taken for granted that he has someone in a high place who can defend him and is not pleased with the president’s order,” he said. “That’s why most of our president’s reform processes are still fruitless, and ordinary people are badly affected.”

He recalled a recent meeting with Thein Sein during which the reformist admitted that there are some obstacles to his current program.

“Take the return of Burmese exiles as an example. In that case, it takes him one year to remove them officially from the blacklist. So you can guess what happens in other cases,” said Thu Wai, whose own name was only removed a few days ago.

Conventional wisdom says that the recent cabinet reshuffle is the president’s attempt to get rid of some hardliners “who do not have a reformist mindset,” as he mentioned during a speech in May.

“With the demise of hardliners in the new cabinet, hopefully the president is now free to move. But we still don’t know to what extent as it is in a very early state,” added Thu Wai.

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, thinks that Thein Sein increasing the number of President’s Office ministers to six is his way of preparing to accelerate the reform process.

“After the cabinet shakeup, we really want to see the right policy changes that can promote people’s rights,” he said.

Even though there is some skepticism about the reshuffle, people who spoke to The Irrawaddy view the inclusion of scholars and technocrat as deputies in relevant ministries as a positive sign.

“It’s good to have someone who knows their job rather than just having someone who has only been trained to take orders,” said Chan Tun.

Hla Shwe said if the government really wants to make changes, they have to make them happen.

“As we are seeing no tangible results after 17 months of his presidency, I wonder if the government is doing some publicity stunts by parroting ‘reform or change,’” he said.

“If they want to alleviate poverty, why don’t they go down to the grassroots level to witness people suffering? A visit to a slum could give them some idea about it.”

On the fourth evening after Thein Sein announced his new cabinet members to strengthen reform, Min Zaw, 26, was at a downtown bus stop. The salesman endures a punishing bus ride for many hours from his home in the outskirts of Rangoon to his job in the city center every day.

“I know very little about our president’s reforms,” he said.

“But it would be very kind of him if he could arrange more bus services that can make our ride home comfortable,” he added, before taking his place amongst his fellow passengers all jammed in like sardines.