ANALYSIS

As Thailand and Vietnam tighten, Myanmar reforms

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WHEN I’m feeling down, troubled and disoriented, I recall what my old physiology professor once counseled in such moments: “Context.”

His advice echoes today amid the astringent criticism now raining upon Myanmar for the alleged stalling of its reforms.

Context helps one avoid getting too upset about this and some of the other more preposterous statements during and after the recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Naypyidaw.

Instead of screaming like a demented tourist trying to change an old twenty-dollar bill in Bagan, it makes us remember that even valid points must be put in context.


Many analysts don’t. Peer pressure and a natural survival instinct impel one to join the context-blind herd. Sauve qui peut, if you like.

But let’s stiffen the sinews and turn to those damn articles claiming that President Thein Sein’s reforms have lapsed, if not reversed, and that fast remedial action better be taken — or else!

I don’t buy it.

Not because it’s wrongheaded and simplistic and could lead us back to Bosnia in the ’90s or Egypt today. Rather, this view makes the cardinal mistake of forgetting context.

Remember when and where
When and where are we? Answer: less than five years into one of history’s most profound political and economic reformations in volatile Southeast Asia.

Remember how things were some moons ago. Not the General Ne Win ’60s when Yangon’s only hotel worth the name was the Soviet-built Inya Lake, where guests checking in got a piece of soap, a threadbare towel and a light bulb.

No, just less than five years ago getting a media visa was a nightmare. A SIM card was hard to find and cost over $1,000. The state-run New Light of Myanmar paper was for breakfast, and the notion of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi getting elected drew laughs.

Nowadays, the Inya Lake, like Yangon’s other top hotels, is a fine place, Sim cards are cheap and ubiquitous, there is far more press freedom, and Daw Suu sits in parliament.

This progress and context is something United States President Barack Obama, along with the massed ranks of the commentariat at the Asean shindig, missed.

Mr. Obama, for instance, said if “a government controls the journalists, then it’s very difficult for the citizens to hold that government accountable.”

True, but hang on. The context is Southeast Asia: on a press freedom scale of one to ten, Myanmar rates about six, while Brunei, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam lie near zero.

Bangkok’s ruling generals ban any media criticism of the regime, including quotations from academics or independent observers. In Vietnam, every newspaper, every single one, is owned and run by the Communist Party, and prints zero criticism of the government or its leaders.

Did Mr. Obama berate Prayuth Chan-ocha or Nguyen Tan Dung, the prime ministers of Thailand and Vietnam, at the Asean Summit? Nope, just Myanmar.

Democratic multiparty elections — an idea that makes some regional leaders turn a whiter shade of pale — will take place in Myanmar next year. Yet Westerners claim backsliding.

In martial law Thailand, there is no backsliding: there is no democracy from which to backslide. It is a dead parrot that will stay dead for a long time.

Prayuth and Dung deserved a far harsher tongue-lashing than Thein Sein. But don’t ask Obama, CNN or Reuters.

Suu Kyi and The Terminator
Yes, yes, I know, it’s not nice that Daw Suu is barred from becoming president because her children are foreigners. But look around the region.

In Malaysia, only a Malay Muslim can be prime minister; in Singapore, only a Chinese. And in the week he announced immigration reform, Obama might recall that his own nation forbids immigrant Americans from becoming president.

Years ago, when interviewing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I recalled that despite his immense popularity, he couldn’t be president because he was born outside the US. In a globalized world, is that not dafter than Daw Suu’s prohibition?

It’s that kind of thing that those who claim Myanmar’s reforms are stalling, fail to appreciate. Which makes one wonder how much time they’ve spent in the country and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Still, they do bolster their case by referring to the continuing violence in Myanmar’s border states and the non-lift-off of Thein Sein’s economic reforms. But again, context.

A long-running and horrendously violent insurgency rages in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces. And after two decades, Vietnam’s doi moi reforms, meant to end catastrophic Stalinist economics, are still nowhere near full potential.

Thanks to Washington’s rivalry with Beijing, Hanoi’s economic stalling, and the total absence of democracy or an independent media or religious freedom, have not kept it from America’s embrace and lethal weapons.

So please bear all this in mind if you come across yet another of those facile yet fiercely accusatory articles knocking Myanmar’s reform miracle.

And if drawn into this specious nonsense, take a Yangon trip and drop by one of the many trendy new wine bars and bistros. Inside, you can open up The New York Times or The Economist and start griping about repression and rights abuses in Myanmar as loudly as you like.

No one in uniform or civvies will bother you, although a neighbor at the bar might lean over and whisper in your ear to remember one thing, please.

Context.

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