Keeping Burma’s ‘Reformers’ Honest in 2015

By The Irrawaddy 31 December 2014

Looking back at 2014, developments in Burma at times felt like watching a shoddily produced Hollywood science fiction film, with a poor script, meandering plot and bad acting to boot. The rise of communal violence, a clampdown on media freedoms, renewed fighting in ethnic regions and intense political jockeying dominated the year.

To many Burmese, who had looked to 2014 with hope and cautious optimism 12 months ago, the year has hardly been an inspiring one, leading many minds to question: Where are we heading?

Will we see a repeat of 2014 in the year ahead? Is the country destined for a brighter future or bleak redux to the days of dictatorship? In pondering these questions, what we need is a healthy balance of optimism and skepticism.

Everyone knows that the military continues to control power and wealth in Burma, a country that is ruled by ex-generals whose predecessor still lurks behind the scenes.

To be fair, change has come to Burma, albeit more slowly than some would hope. Mobile phones and SIM cards are selling like hotcakes, and new restaurants, shops and hotels are popping up cities nationwide. The Burmese people have enjoyed newfound freedoms, allowing for intense debate on whether the reform is only skin-deep, which plays out in teashop conversations, comedians’ jokes and Facebook. Naturally, many Burmese who lived under the generals’ repressive rule for decades have a more skeptical take on the reform process, which Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged has hit a “bumpy patch.”

At a year-end press conference on Tuesday, Suu Kyi said that for the “great majority” of Burmese people, the last year has not brought improvements to their lives.

“I don’t think 2014 is exactly the kind of year that you can be particularly proud of. We have to work a lot harder in 2015,” the democracy leader said.

There is no way of knowing how bumpy things will get on Burma’s road to democracy. It is safe to assume, however, that it will be a slow, painful and long haul. Indeed, with high-stakes elections slated for late next year, we should expect more political shenanigans and even potentially more violence on the horizon.

With 2015 just a day away, we can be confident that Burma will see more meaningful changes, but only if its people remain clear-eyed. The majority want further reform and in the end it is the people of Burma who will decide where this country is going, and how we’ll get there.