On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seats. This blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the second preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here)
The EU, amongst many other world observers, has its eyes peeled. As we saw earlier in the year, the US and the UK both sent their foreign secretaries to laud the reforms process and signal a probable end to the long-running sanctions and the long-standing isolation of the beautiful South East Asia nation. The European Union has already eased travel bans and pumped in a new €150m health and education development package. The bloc is ready to roll back some more restrictions provided the 1 April by-election is “free and fair”.
However, the EU would also like to see all ceasefires in the country upheld and peace deals signed if there has, as yet, been no end to violence. The current situation report is not perfect. On Monday 12 March, officials admitted that a fresh round of talks between the government and rebels in Kachin state to try to reach a peace agreement had failed. The Kachin Independence Organisation leader said:
“The reason we couldn’t sign an agreement was because mutual trust still needs to be built up and has not reached a solid level yet but we hope we will have a peace deal one day.”
In response, the government chief negotiator said:
“We are determined to have eternal peace with all ethnic groups.”
The government has clashed repeatedly with many rebels for many decades but has managed to sign ceasefires with the Karen, Shan, Chin and Mon groups recently, all of whom would like some form of devolution. Outsiders will remain nervous if the unrest in the north of the country is not resolved.
China is one of the world observers that is not in as wild a celebratory mood as Western nations. It has called for work to restart on a dam in the north of the country. Construction is well underway but the government in Naypyidaw ordered a postponement recently due to complaints from local and environmental pressure groups. They argue that the lake that would be formed would cause people in five villages to relocate and that 90% of the electricity produced by the project would skip out needy villagers and whizz straight over the border to China for consumption there.
So do you stop the dam, save the villages and anger a rich next-door neighbour or do you leave them with dodgy utilities, ship the power to China but land yourself a multi-million dollar cheque at the same time? This is part of the complicated and difficult reforms the country has embarked upon. Foreign businesses will be looking to invest in a more open and democratic Myanmar if the political situation stabilises. The country is rich in oil, gas and timber and is at the Indo-China geo-political crossroads.
If the by-election is indeed ‘free and fair’ then the process will continue and outsiders will be pleased. But the internal wrangling will not be solved on 1 April. Burma is a nation of 60m people, speaking many different languages and of different ethnicities. It has been through colonialism, the isolation imposed by the military junta and is gently breaking free from the ties. These changes must not be rushed, but they must be not be halted. The 1 April by-election is crucial, but it will be a stepping-stone on the bridge, not an end in itself.
This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April