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    US acknowledges Myanmar reforms

     Photo by LARRY DOWNING /Reuters
    Radio Australia:
     May 22, 2013
    Just a day
    following historic White House talks between President Obama and Myanmar’s
    reformist head of state Thein Sein, a trade and investment deal has been struck
    between the two countries.
    The Obama
    administration suspended most sanctions on Myanmar last year and is hoping the
    new trade agreement will show the country tangible benefits for embracing
    reform, including better protection for workers rights.
    While some
    human rights groups say it’s too soon to reward Myanmar, others, such as
    business consultant and former British envoy Derek Tonkin, say sanctions should
    now be lifted completely.
    Presenter:
    Sen Lam
    Speaker:
    Derek Tonkin, advisor to Bagan Capital Limited and former British ambassador to
    Vietnam and Thailand
    TONKIN: I
    think we are approaching a point at which we can begin to speak of
    ‘normalisation of relations’ between Myanmar and the outside world. In some
    cases, for example, Japan, Australia, south Korea, and of course, the whole of
    ASEAN, they have now achieved normalisation, although the word is not actually
    used. In the case of the European Community, I would say that with the final
    lifting of sanctions some weeks ago, you had achieved ‘normalisation’ although
    the word is not yet been used in any political context.
    In the case
    of the United States, they are certainly on the road towards ‘normalisation’
    but with the continuance still of sanctions and other problems and
    difficulties, I don’t think the United States would want to use that word at
    the present. However, President Thein Sein has received a very warm welcome in
    the United States and I think one can say that they are on the road towards
    ‘normalisation’.
    LAM: It was
    also noted that President Obama repeatedly used the word, ‘Myanmar’ – a name
    introduced by the junta – Is that an indication that the US acknowledges that
    this is as good as it gets, that it’s at least, a fair start, for Myanmar’s
    road to democracy?
    TONKIN: Yes,
    I think that’s generally true. What I would say, is that it would be impossible
    to invite President Thein Sein to visit the US without using the word Myanmar.
    Nor could any trade agreements or anything else be signed, unless the word
    Myanmar was used. It is the formal name for the country in English, accepted by
    all 193 members of the United Nations. And in all diplomatic notes, letters of
    credence, agreements and so on, the United States has always used the name
    Myanmar, because to use any other name, would be to invite rejection of the
    document.
    LAM: And
    President Thein Sein, while he welcomes the recognition afforded him by the
    Americans, he did say that periods of transition are usually fraught with risk.
    Some are saying that indeed, reforms are too slow – that perhaps Thein Sein is
    being too careful about reforms. You were in Myanmar last week, what did you
    see, what’s your assessment?
    TONKIN: Well,
    the assessment I have is that the pace of reforms is really quite electrifying.
    It’s going far faster than anyone had supposed. Indeed, the most frequent
    comment I heard, while I was in Myanmar, was that reforms were going ahead too
    rapidly, too quickly. It is after all, only two years, since, much to
    everyone’s surprise, President Thein Sein referred in his inaugural address, to
    the various reforms which he plans to institute.
    LAM: When
    you’re talking about reforms progressing too quickly, presumably, you were
    referring to economic and business reforms, not democratic reforms?
    TONKIN: Well,
    I’m referring to all reforms, because you know, the freedom of the press for
    example – I was astounded by some of the things that I saw in the local press.
    For example,
    there was a very hostile article by Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK ..
    in which he was very critical of the President and also, indeed, of Daw Aung
    San Suu Kyi. That was an article in the Myanmar Times! And I give it as just as
    an example, the extent to which press freedom now exists. Although, still alot
    of work has to be done on the actual legislation. The reforms are there, if you
    like, more in practice, than in law. And it’s the law that needs to catch up
    with the practice, on the political side.
    LAM: You
    speak of reform in practice, and one of the common refrains is that Thein
    Sein’s reform ideas, don’t always trickle down the chain. Is that a fair
    assessment?
    TONKIN: I
    think that’s fair – it’s obviously going to take time, before the word comes
    down the line, as you put it, and lower officials and particularly, in the
    countryside, begin to understand what democracy is all about. At present, I’m
    afraid they don’t.

    However, the
    welcome that you receive now when arriving at Mingaladon International Airport,
    contrasts very much with what happened some years ago. And as you pass through
    customs, there you see an ATM, you change your money at a fair market rate, you
    buy your SIM card from the Myanmar tourist authority, 27 dollars, with 20
    dollars worth of local mobile calls. And then taxis into town, half of them are
    now brand new. So superficially, you can see the changes that are happening.

    And also
    around town you get a hum of excitement, you feel that people are now very much
    relaxed than they were before.

    However,
    although I didn’t visit the countryside, I’m told that not much there has
    changed and this doesn’t surprise me at all. But you do sense that there’s a
    new atmosphere around, and I think that is really so important.

    LAM: You obviously
    sound very optimistic where Myanmar reforms are concerned – do you think it’s a
    matter of time that that translates in relation to Myanmar’s minority ethnic
    groups as well, perhaps the Rohingyas in Rakhine state? Is it only a matter of
    time, that things might get better for them as well?
    TONKIN: As
    far as the ethnic minorities are concerned, and the Muslim minority, you are
    dealing with very intractable problems. Over the years, the problem has been
    that the ethnic nationalities, and I’m thinking of the Shans, the Karens, the
    Chins, the Mons and so on, greatly resented what they saw as the
    ‘Burmanisation’ of the whole country, and particularly the suppression of their
    culture. That I think has now stopped.
    In the case
    of the Muslims, particularly, the Rohingyas, you have a very intractable
    historical problem that goes back to the time of the British and indeed,
    before, because in the 1930s, the British had to contest with firstly,
    anti-Indian riots in the 1930s, in the wake of the economic depression then,
    and in 1938, there were particularly anti-Muslim riots throughout Burma. Then
    we we had the war years, in Rakhine state, we had a Jihadist movement, there
    were waves of people moving across from Bangladesh into Burma and back again,
    that problem is going to take a very long time to resolve.
    I found no
    hesitation among Burmese, in accepting the reality that there are some
    three-million Muslims living in the country and they need to be given due human
    rights. They cannot continue to be subjected to the kind of restrictions which
    had applied. But there is great reluctance to use the term ‘Rohingya’ which
    after all, was never used while the British were there, from 1825 to 1948. You
    have a great problem there, with this ‘Rohingya’ label and I don’t know what
    the answer is.
    It’s going to
    take a long time to resolve it, I very much hope the international community
    can provide support, for what is, I know for President Thein Sein, a difficult
    problem.