Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi

Portrait of a controversial woman in a country torn by conflicts

Half of the world hates her. Half of the world loves her. Drawing up a portrait of the Lady is not easy. One can get caught in a consistent grey area, which returns a blurred and mysterious image of her. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of the President's Office. Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights winner, Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of thought recipient, US Congressional Gold Medal overcomer. Woman, wife, daughter. She was placed under house arrest on and off from 1988 to 2010, while her husband in England died of cancer. She nearly escaped a firefight that was plotted explicitly against her and her supporters. She was then condemned by the international critics for legitimizing, or at least denying, the Rohingya Muslim minority genocide in Myanmar. 

Myanmar which has been recently put in the spotlight by the international press due to the coup d’état of Burmese military forces, the Tatmadaw. Leaders of the majority party NLD (National League for Democracy) led by Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested, a state of emergency was declared, and all means of communication were cut. For the present being, allegations include “violation of the import-export law”, because she was illegally detaining four walkie-talkies. The news caused a sensation worldwide. But it was no surprise for those that have been following developments in Myanmar for a long time. The coup d’état fits into a context where frictions between military forces and the Lady lasted for decades. Along with the junta’s strict control over the country's political, social, and religious life.

Burmese military junta has been closely tied with Myanmar’s political life since 1962, 14 years after the country’s independence from Great Britain and a short period of democratic transition. First, by supporting the Socialist Party, then, by invalidating the party’s election victory, the pretext of electoral fraud has always been used by the junta to keep control and suppress all the pro-democratic movements that followed 1962. The most famous one, which turned into the “8888 Uprising” (a national insurrection whose aim was a more democratic government), began on the 8th of August 1988. It lasted one month and went down in history as it ended in bloodshed. Thousands of monks and civilians, mainly students, were killed by the Tatmadaw. Due to riots, the State Peace and Development Council was founded, led by the military junta. It was in this context that Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon. She lived abroad for a consistent part of her life, but that year was back in Myanmar, to look after her sick mother.

Her father, Aung San, was a Burmese General and a politician. He negotiated Burma's independence from the United Kingdom and became Counsellor for Defence. However, he was assassinated at the height of his success, leaving a heavy burden on his two-year-old daughter, his two sons, and his wife, wife, who became Myanmar Ambassador to India some years later. Suu Kyi attended the best Western universities and started working at the United Nations in New York. She lived there until the 1988 Uprising. After the tragedy, she decided to remain in Myanmar and found the NLD. One year later, she was under house arrest.

After 1988, up and downs followed. Probation and house arrest, the overwhelming victory of her party in the elections (cancelled once again by a military coup), the Nobel Peace Prize, the calls of the international community for her release, from Kofi Annan to Pope Giovanni Paolo II. She survived a gunfight, but her husband died of cancer in England, thousands of miles away from her. Her children grew and became adults without being allowed to see her.

She was finally released in 2010, and in 2015 the first free elections since the coup of 1962 were held. According to the 2008 Constitution, drafted by the junta, Aung San Suu Kyi could not be elected as the President: citizens having foreign relatives (British children, in her case) cannot have access to the highest state office. Suspects are that the law was specifically created to prevent her to assume the role. To get by the rule, a new ad hoc position was created just for her, the “State Counsellor”: a de facto Prime Minister.

After some years, the international community’s excitement for her success suddenly turned off, replaced by indignation. The champion of democracy and human rights denied the Rohingya ethnic cleansing carried out by the junta in the Rakhine state. When called to witness by the International Court in The Hague, she talked about “misleading and incomplete picture of the situation in Rakhine State”, defending her country by the accusation of genocide. Despite that the crisis demolished her public image abroad, she gained a broader consensus among the Burmese population thanks to her speech. A consensus that increased even more, thanks to the well-management of the COVID-19 crisis in the country.

The public opinion around her figure splits in two. From one side, some point the finger at her silence and claims that prizes must be rescinded. From the other side, some know well how delicate her position is. And how it is not easy to counteract the enormous political influence of the junta and the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order that legitimates the country’s ruler’s political power. Those who are approved by the Sangha, whether politicians or generals, are approved by the population too. Its most radical and nationalist fringe is well known for acting violent and spreading hate speech against Rohingyas. The Sangha might well have some weight in influencing Suu Kyi’s actions and choices to keep the country together.

Influence or not, Suu Kyi delivered in January a New Year address to the Nation. She promised a new approach towards the peace negotiation process and to fix the numerous civil conflicts in the country. She paved the way for a plan, the “New Peace Architecture”, to gather more participation from diverse political forces, civil society organizers, and citizens. The coup casts a dark shadow on these projects, and it is not sure whether these will be pursued anymore.

Intervista all’On. Fassino sul recente golpe in Myanmar

Piero Fassino, già inviato UE in Myanmar nel 2007 e Presidente della Commissione Esteri della Camera dei Deputati, ci spiega il perché del golpe e delinea alcune tendenze del Paese per capire la situazione locale e quali i possibili sviluppi



Che ruolo giocano i militari nel Paese? Ci si poteva aspettare un loro ritorno al potere? Davvero si pensava avrebbero lasciato il potere definitivamente ai civili? Davvero i militari lasceranno il potere fra un anno?

Per rispondere a queste domande bisogna andare alle radici dell’indipendenza birmana e della guerra di liberazione contro l’occupazione giapponese nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale guidata con successo proprio dal generale Aung San, il padre di Aung San Suu Kyi. Intorno ad Aung San si formò un gruppo dirigente costituito da ufficiali, alcuni dei quali ordirono il complotto che portò all’uccisione dello stesso Aung San alla vigilia dell’indipendenza.

Da allora l’esercito è parte integrante della storia e dell’identità nazionale. Non bisogna dimenticare poi che, sebbene la stragrande maggioranza della popolazione sia di fede buddista, la Birmania è uno stato non solo multireligioso, ma anche multietnico e plurilinguistico, con assetto federale, con spinte autonomistiche – e anche secessionistiche – che hanno consentito alle forze armate di presentarsi come i garanti dell’unità nazionale.

Altro punto di analisi da non trascurare è che la transizione alla democrazia non è avvenuta per una sconfitta della giunta militare, ma con un processo octroye’ dalle autorità militari che hanno accettato la formazione di un governo civile e l’avvio di una transizione democratica in cambio di una riserva del 25% dei seggi parlamentari e del mantenimento di tre ministeri chiave: difesa, interni e appunto coesione nazionale. Processo che sia la comunità internazionale, sia Aung San Suu Kyi hanno accettato scommettendo sul fatto che la gradualità della transizione avrebbe via via ridotto il peso dei militari e favorito una completa e compiuta democratizzazione del Paese. I fatti di queste settimane hanno spezzato quel disegno. Ed è difficile credere che al termine dello stato d’emergenza, ovvero tra un anno, si ritorni ad una dinamica democratica.

Aung San Suu Kyi governa dal 2015 e ha dovuto affrontare il problema dei Rohingya. Su quest’ultimo tema è stata molto criticata dalla comunità internazionale e ha perso credibilità (anche alla luce del suo essere stata un campione dei diritti per il quale aveva vinto il Nobel). Può aver messo da parte i principi per agire in modo realista? Ovvero sacrificare qualcosa per mostrarsi in grado di governare il Paese e quindi essere un attore politico responsabile agli occhi dei militari? Alla fine si può dire che la sua azione non abbia pagato e ne sia uscita screditata?

Aung San Suu Kyi, liberata a fine 2010, è entrata in Parlamento con le elezioni suppletive del 2012 in cui si rinnovarono 42 seggi, la gran parte conquistati dall’NLD. Successo replicato alle elezioni del 2015 che diedero alla Lega Nazionale per la Democrazia una larga maggioranza assoluta che le consenti di formare il primo governo democratico e avviare una transizione che ha liberato tutti i detenuti per ragioni politiche, abolire ogni forma di censura, aprire il Paese a investimenti stranieri, modernizzare il Paese e concludere accordi di pacificazione e autonomia con le minoranze etniche. La repressione dei Rohingya è stata una iniziativa dei generali che, sfruttando la generale ostilità della popolazione birmana verso i Rohiynga, ha fatto fare ad Aung San Suu Kyi la parte del carnefice quando invece l’azione dei militari è stata da lei totalmente subita. Come abbiamo visto, secondo la Costituzione birmana i ministeri della difesa e degli interni, non rispondono al Parlamento ma alle gerarchie militari. Contrastare apertamente i generali voleva dire opporsi a un sentimento diffuso di ostilità verso i Rohingya presente nell’opinione pubblica nazionale; non contrastare i generali ha voluto dire opporsi a un sentimento diffuso nell’opinione pubblica internazionale giustamente sensibile alla tutela delle minoranze e dei diritti umani. La prudenza manifestata da Aung San Suu Kyi in quel frangente non è frutto di cinismo o insensibilità, ma della consapevolezza di stare dentro a un processo difficile e incompiuto che come tale conosce dei rallentamenti, ma del quale non si può abbandonare la guida. Questa complessità è stata del tutto sottovalutata in Occidente che ha assunto posizioni che hanno avuto l’unico effetto di indebolire Aung San Suu Kyi.

E quindi la severità dell’Occidente è stata controproducente?

Sì. La scelta del Parlamento Europeo di ritirare il Premio Sacharov all’esponente politica birmana è stata una decisione moralistica e profondamente impolitica, assunta senza valutarne le conseguenze. Max Weber ci aveva ammonito da questo rischio. La politica non può essere guidata soltanto dall’etica della testimonianza, che valuta solo la mera coerenza dei principi. In politica vale l’etica della responsabilità che non si ferma alla coincidenza tra scelte e valori, ma si interroga sulle conseguenze di quelle scelte. Ora non vi è dubbio che aver voluto “punire” la prudenza di Aung San Suu Kyi è stata letta dai generali come una forma di isolamento internazionale della Lady, contro la quale dunque si poteva agire. E se il colpo di stato ha una connessione con la vicenda Rohingya, non è per la “prudenza” di Aung San Suu Kyi, ma per il fatto che il generale a capo del golpe sia sotto inchiesta da parte del tribunale penale internazionale per i diritti umani proprio perché ritenuto responsabile della repressione dei Rohingya.

Dalla sua esperienza di inviato in Myanmar cosa ha capito della politica e società locale? Ritiene che il Paese sia pronto per una democratizzazione? Ci sono le basi e se si quanto sono solide per una democrazia?

I militari hanno tenuto per 60 anni la popolazione in uno stato di oppressione politica e di arretratezza economica e culturale. Ad esempio il sentimento ostile nei confronti dei Rohingya, su cui come abbiamo visto hanno speculato i generali, è un segno di arretratezza. Ma non ci si può fermare solo al dato negativo. Le conquiste democratiche e civili avvengono per tappe e dentro un processo. La mia esperienza mi dice che il Paese è pronto all’apertura al mondo e alla democratizzazione. E ha dato ampiamente prova di questa maturazione democratica alle ultime elezioni, quelle dell’8 novembre quando il percorso intrapreso dalla Lega Democratica di Aung San Suu Kyi è stato fortemente confermato da una grande maggioranza della popolazione e le manifestazioni di piazza di questi giorni che sfidano il regime militare dicono bene di questa maturazione e di questa consapevolezza acquisita.

 Che influenza può avere l’ASEAN? Sappiamo che uno dei principi dell’ASEAN è proprio quello di non interferenza negli affari degli Stati membri, ma è una politica che potrebbe cambiare? Potrebbe l’ASEAN “suggerire” un ritorno al processo democratico? In fondo il Paese era stato criticato per l’affare Rohingya e molti Stati (Indonesia in primis) si erano spesi per la democratizzazione in passato.

Il principio della non interferenza negli affari degli altri Stati in Asia è una regola applicata da tutti i governi. Nonostante ciò, agire sui Paesi asiatici è indispensabile, puntando sia sui vicini della Birmania, sia sull’ASEAN, l’istituzione multilaterale nel Sud-Est asiatico. E l’Associazione di amicizia Italia-ASEAN può avere un ruolo importante da svolgere. La Birmania si trova a un bivio. Essere attratta nell’orbita cinese con un ruolo di sparring partner sostanzialmente subalterno, oppure tuffarsi convintamente nel partenariato dell’Indo-Pacifico, dove sarebbe un soggetto alla pari con tutti gli altri. L’ASEAN è un esempio di multilateralismo economico che vuol dire pace e apertura. Certo abbiamo visto che cooperazione economica non porta immediatamente alla democrazia e allo stato di diritto. Ma i mercati aperti, se non sono una condizione sufficiente, sono comunque una condizione necessaria e propedeutica a qualsiasi sviluppo in senso dell’ampliamento delle libertà civili e politiche delle popolazioni di tutti i Paesi del mondo. Compresa ovviamente quella del Myanmar.  

Che ruolo possono giocare l’UE, gli USA con il nuovo Presidente Biden e la comunità internazionale in generale per favorire la democrazia e fare pressione sui militari?

Dobbiamo considerare che l’80 % degli scambi del Myanmar avvengono con i Paesi vicini, in gran parte con la Cina e l’ASEAN. Mentre con l’Europa e gli USA l’interscambio rappresenta meno del 20%. Ergo una classica risposta occidentale come le sanzioni avrebbe un’incidenza limitata e peraltro in Asia nessun Paese adotta misure sanzionatorie. Anche qui ritorna la distinzione weberiana tra etica della testimonianza e etica delle responsabilità. La storia ci insegna che le conseguenze di comportamenti sanzionatori da parte della comunità internazionale hanno spesso come conseguenza il consolidamento dei regimi autoritari e repressivi e non il loro indebolimento. Per questo ciò che possono fare l’Unione Europea e gli USA è intraprendere una diplomazia triangolare che agisca sia su organismi multilaterali come l’ASEAN, sia sull’influenza della Cina e di alcuni Paesi della regione. Ricordo bene che nel 2010-11 nello smuovere i militari birmani ad accettare la transizione ebbe un ruolo importante l’Indonesia. 

Where China meets India: quanto pesa la geopolitica nei destini del Myanmar? 

Come si evince da questa sua citazione, che è il titolo di una importante pubblicazione del politologo Thant Myint-U uscita proprio 10 anni fa, la Birmania è l’unico Stato del Sud-Est asiatico che confina e per un lungo tratto, sia con la Cina che con l’India. Questo conferisce al Paese un’importanza geopolitica e geoeconomica fondamentale. Se pensiamo alle tensioni geopolitiche che attraversano il Mar Cinese Meridionale e che contrappongono la Cina ora a Taiwan, ora alle Filippine, ora all’Indonesia, è facile vedere come la Birmania abbia per la Cina un interesse strategico essendo la via più diretta per accedere all’Oceano Indiano, senza dover passare attraverso il Mar Cinese Meridionale e soprattutto lo stretto di Malacca. Non solo, ma la Cina è il principale partner commerciale della Birmania e ha programmato grandi investimenti infrastrutturali nel Paese. E la Birmania è inserita nei percorsi della nuova Via della Seta. Del resto non è certo passata inosservata la visita del Ministro degli Esteri cinese Wang Yi in Birmania pochi giorni prima del golpe, segno di un’attenzione speciale che Pechino ha dimostrato e continua a dimostrare per i destini del Myanmar. È proprio perché la Cina ha interesse a una Birmania stabile, bisogna convincere Pechino che una Birmania sotto il tallone dei generali rischia di essere assai meno stabile di una Birmania democratica. Così come in questi anni di apertura è cresciuta la presenza dell’India. Non va mai dimenticato che la Birmania è ricca di risorse naturali: è seduta su una gigantesca nuvola di gas; gode di consistenti risorse idriche che gli consentirebbero un’agricoltura fiorente; è leader nelle gemme preziose; beneficia del miglior tek per le costruzioni navali; è ricco di molte materie prime.  È importante che anche l’Occidente mostri un’attenzione all’altezza della situazione e usi la leva degli investimenti per impedire una involuzione autoritaria della Birmania.

Intervista a cura di Niccolò Camponi 

The reactions of the European Institutions to the coup in Myanmar

The reactions of the European Institutions were not long in coming to the news of the coup d'état in Myanmar in which the Tatmadaw, the country's armed forces, arrested President Win Myint, State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the civilian government invoking article 418 of the 2008 Constitution, for alleged fraud during the last elections in November 2020, and declaring a state of emergency for a year.

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has taken a tough position, calling for the immediate restoration of the legitimate civilian government in Myanmar and the rapid opening of parliament with the participation of all elected representatives, as required by the Constitution.

The same condemnation also came from the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Parliament, as well as some members of European Parliament.

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Colpo di Stato in Myanmar

Dopo giorni di crescente tensione tra il governo civile e le forze armate, la leader Aung San Suu Kyi, vincitrice delle ultime elezioni, e altri alti esponenti del partito al governo, sono stati arrestati. I militari hanno dichiarato lo stato di emergenza per un anno e hanno annunciato che l’ex generale Myint Swe sarà presidente ad interim per tutta la durata dello stato d’emergenza. 

I militari hanno giustificato il colpo di stato sostenendo “enormi irregolarità” nelle elezioni di novembre che la commissione elettorale non era riuscita a risolvere.

Il Presidente dell’Associazione Italia-ASEAN Enrico Letta, condannando fortemente la mossa dei militari, ha dichiarato che “ogni transizione democratica è fatta di tappe e di prassi che si affermano. Oggi il Myanmar fa un grave e inaccettabile passo indietro arrestando i leader che dovevano guidare questa transizione”.

La premio Nobel per la Pace Aung San Suu Kyi ha lanciato un appello al popolo affinché si opponga ai militari. “Esorto la popolazione a non accettarlo, a rispondere e a protestare con tutto il cuore contro il colpo di stato”. Fonti Reuters riportano anche un appello a non fare uso di violenza e ad agire secondo la legge.

Le reazioni internazionali non si sono fatte attendere e vanno tutte nella stessa direzione. La portavoce della Casa Bianca Jen Psaki  ha riferito che “Gli Stati Uniti si oppongono a qualsiasi tentativo di alterare l’esito delle recenti elezioni o di impedire la transizione democratica del Myanmar, e prenderanno provvedimenti contro i responsabili se questi passi non saranno invertiti”.

Il segretario generale delle Nazioni Unite Guterres, condannando il golpe, ha affermato che “Questi sviluppi sono un duro colpo alle riforme democratiche. Le elezioni generali dell’8 novembre 2020 davano un forte mandato alla Lega nazionale per la democrazia, riflettendo la chiara volontà del popolo birmano di continuare sulla strada conquistata a fatica della riforma democratica”.

Il Myanmar dal 1997 ha aderito all’ASEAN, l’Associazione delle Nazioni del Sud-est asiatico, un’organizzazione politica, economica e culturale, fondata nel 1967 con lo scopo di promuovere la cooperazione e l’assistenza reciproca fra gli stati membri per accelerare il progresso economico e aumentare la stabilità della regione. Il Myanmar, indipendente dalla Gran Bretagna dal 1948 e guidato da una giunta militare dal 1962, nel 2010 ha avviato una transizione verso la democrazia con una serie di graduali riforme politiche, instaurando un governo civile, scarcerando gli oppositori politici tra cui Aung San Suu Kyi, leader della Lega Nazionale per la Democrazia, e convocando libere elezioni parlamentari.

Ad oggi il Myanmar resta uno dei paesi più poveri e meno sviluppati del pianeta e dopo decenni di stagnazione, embargo internazionale e isolamento economico, dal 2011 il paese sta registrando un forte sviluppo economico in tutti i settori. Il colpo di stato di oggi mette a rischio la transizione democratica e mina quella stabilità politica indispensabile alla crescita economica.

Elections in Myanmar, Suu Kyi proclaims the victory

The National League for Democracy wins and welcomes new challenges for the country’s renovation 

General elections were held in Myanmar on November the 8th and, as the counting of votes ended, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the popular leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has secured more than 80% of the available parliament seats.

Myanmar is still a country in its infancy when it comes to electoral democracy, indeed it is just the second time that citizens attend the polls, after fifty years of military dictatorship. November 8th vote aimed to renew 500 of the 664 seats in the two Houses of Parliament and the NLD, the ruling party in the previous legislature, was expected to get even more votes than those won in the 2015 elections. Expectations were confirmed by the counts, which have given to Suu Kyi 396 out of the 498 seats assigned. It is a landslide victory for the majority, which however will still have to deal with the veto power of the military forces, that according to the constitutional provisions hold 25% of the seats.

Elections came following a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Myanmar, which since mid-August has documented more than 60.000 infections and 1.390 deaths. Due to the exponential increase of positive cases the opposing parties have asked for a postponement of the elections, nonetheless the NLD and the Electoral Commission insisted on bringing citizens to the polls. Elderly voters were allowed to vote early and the government provided adequate provisions, individual protection tools for the workers and measures guaranteeing social distancing in each polling station. 

The health emergency and security reasons related to ethnic tensions have made it difficult to access the vote in 51 electoral districts, corresponding to about 1.5 million people, according to the estimates calculated by the Electoral Commission. The most affected population by the voting restrictions is located in the Rakhine region, where currently there are hostilities between the minorities and the military forces. The western part of the country is also populated by the Rohingya minority group, who is not considered part of the national population as they are immigrants from Bangladesh, consequently they were unable to go to the polls.

The Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) supported by the military forces was the main opponent of the NLD in the last elections. Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, High General Min Aung Hlaing, at first place refused to honour the general elections results, criticizing the controversial handling of electoral procedures. However, on Sunday, after casting his vote, the General declared that “he must accept the result, as an expression of the people’s will”.

Despite widespread criticism to the management of the elections, defined as "fundamentally imperfect", the feedback on the national level is absolutely favourable to Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. The general elections were seen as a real referendum on the work of the NLD in the previous legislature and the interviews outside the polling booths confirmed that most citizens were satisfied with the results of the party, thanks to which Myanmar seems to head towards a future of freedom. In the last pre-election rally, Suu Kyi promised to strengthen the country’s democratic structures if re-elected. Recognizing the complaints arising from the management of the vote, she said that "the important thing is to solve these problems by peaceful means within the limits of the law" and advised the voters to remain calm and preserve stability.

In conclusion, such a favourable result for the NLD could offer Suu Kyi's party the opportunity to emancipate itself to a greater extent from the military junta and even attempt to rewrite the constitutional provisions that give the army control over three key ministries: Interior, Defence and Foreign Affairs. On the other hand, the Burmese leader has already highlighted the priorities of her second term. First of all, the fight against the pandemic, which hit Myanmar with a second wave during the election period, but also the implementation of measures oriented to face the economic crisis and accelerate the peace process between the various ethnic minorities in disagreement with the central government.

By Emilia Leban 

Myanmar, a fragile stability at the electoral challenge

The shadow of Covid-19 on the 2020 general elections, between minority rights and ongoing conflicts

On November the 8th the general parliamentary elections will take place in Myanmar. Five years ago, in 2015, the country held its first democratic elections, after decades of military dictatorship, which determined the victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel prize and pro-democracy icon. 

However, despite the landslide success in 2015, the NLD hasn’t been able to make significant changes to the Burmese political system and has failed in its intent to amend the Constitution. Indeed, a qualified majority of 75% of parliamentarians is needed to modify the constitutional charter, and at the moment the military holds 25% of the seats and three key ministries (Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs and Defence). As a consequence, Suu Kyi’s government has failed to achieve its reform goals. 

In addition, in order to deny Suu Kyi the Presidency, the military has included a provision in the Constitution according to which the President cannot have a spouse or children in possession of foreign citizenship. Unfortunately, this is precisely the case of the NLD leader. In the past years, Suu Kyi has partially avoided the obstacle by creating the role of State’s Councillor, which she has held so far, but the possibility of accessing the Presidency of Myanmar remains excluded for her. 

Almost certainly the next elections, which will take place in a tense context due to Covid-19 security measures, will again see the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD which, however, could lose the absolute majority that currently allows the party to govern alone. According to pre-election polls, smaller parties, representing specific minorities, should increase their seats in Parliament and force the NLD into a government coalition. Although Aung San Suu Kyi and her party still remain very popular among the Buddhist majority, known as Bamar, many analysts agree that their consensus has shrunk among the many and diverse minor ethnic groups scattered across the country and which cover over 40% of the population. Indeed, it should be pointed out that Myanmar is affected, perhaps more than other Southeast Asian nations, by the different geographical and cultural convergences that characterize the social fabric of the country. These elements have conditioned the formation of national unity, which is particularly difficult, both from an ethnic, political and social point of view.

Moreover, the spread of the new coronavirus, which could have unpredictable effects on the results, also hangs on the election of November 8th. According to some observers, the restrictions on rallies are likely to benefit large parties such as the NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). However, much will depend on how Myanmar handles the spread of the virus in the weeks to come. Certainly, however, the combination of strict anti-Covid provisions, ethnic conflicts and poor monitoring by international observers presents questions about the regularity of the electoral process in Myanmar.

The current opposition and the military themselves are even trying to postpone the elections, but Suu Kyi worries that accepting this request would be perceived as a sign of weakness, an evidence of defeat towards the pandemic. Furthermore, part of the population cannot access voting procedures. Mostly suffering from this condition are the Rohingya, a Muslim group located in the north of the country, in addition to the thousands of citizens residing in conflict zones, who will hardly be able to go to the polling stations. A complex situation that nevertheless presumes the victory of the NDL, both for its past history and for the privileged use of national media.

What, then, are the prospects for Myanmar after the elections? The hostilities between ethnic groups are by no means over and a possible way forward to ensure greater stability in the country could be the administrative decentralization, in addition to a strengthening of the protection policies for the minorities and the cultural differences of the peoples residing in the national territory. In between the global pandemic and internal tensions, there is no shortage of difficulties, and certainly these elections will play a crucial role in determining Myanmar's near future. 

By Emilia Leban

Myanmar, towards progressive liberalization

In recent years, Myanmar has approved major liberalization reforms aimed at attracting foreign investments.

After 35 years, the first free general elections were held in Myanmar in 2015 with the victory of the National League for Democracy. Since then, a progressive liberalization and openness to internationalization began in the country, after years of isolation dictated by the military government.

The new liberalization policies aim at the access of foreign investors into the country, especially in the banking, insurance and trade sectors (retail and wholesale). The strategy of attracting new foreign direct investments focuses in particular on a simplification and standardization of bureaucratic procedures and a modernization of business law.

These measures were positively assessed by the World Bank, which - prior to the Covid-19 emergency - estimated GDP growth at 6.5% for both 2020 and 2021, despite a global economic slowdown.

As early as 2016, the Yangon Stock Exchange of Myanmar (YSX), a joint venture between the Myanmar Economic Bank, the Japanese Daiwa Institute of Research and Japan Exchange Group, was inaugurated, however the inflow of foreign direct investments was hampered by the rigorous controls established by the military government, gradually eased in 2018 with the reduction of restrictions on the entry of foreign capital in the retail and wholesale sector.

The new company law rules replace a 1914 law and allow foreign investors to be able to hold up to 35% of the shares of a local company. Analysts predict that the influx of foreign capital will spread a greater culture of transparency, best practices and know-how, important for the development of Myanmar's business landscape.

In addition, a bureaucratic simplification process was also started: in the autumn of 2018, the Myanmar Companies Online (MyCO) was set up, an online system for registering online companies, aimed at promoting transparency and reducing the number of documents needed to start an activity.

Since November 2019, the Central Bank of Myanmar has allowed insurance companies and foreign banks to access the local market, providing them with the necessary licenses. In the coming years, the government will support the opening and liberalization of new investment sectors.

Since March 2020, foreign investors have been admitted to trading on the Myanmar stock market. To participate in the negotiation, foreign investors (resident and non-resident) will have to open an account with national intermediaries specialized in holding investment funds.

For now, only five companies are listed on the YSX, three of which are open to foreign investment, for a total of approximately 9 million dollars of shares available for purchase. However, it is likely that requests will come from investors to further loosen certain aspects: for example, to date, a personal verification of identity is needed, which requires physical presence in Myanmar.

Liberalizations in the banking sector

Starting from early April 2020 and following the gradual process of liberalization in the financial sector, the Central Bank of Myanmar allowed seven banks from all over Asia to enter the country market, in which they will begin operating from 2021, after being issued of the necessary licenses.

This is important news for the banking sector, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s governance has heavily invested, if we consider that, up to 2019, Myanmar granted "branch licenses", allowing foreign banks to only operate towards businesses, but forbidding them from accept deposits. Only since November 2019 there had been a first opening to the offering of services to families and consumers.

The new licenses will allow foreign banks to offer a full range of services such as lending to private customers and businesses, exchanging foreign currency, managing liquidity and withdrawing deposits from companies, banks and individuals in both foreign and local currency. This information was confirmed by Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand's largest banks, which is close to entering Myanmar

However, foreign banks still suffer from limitations, as they will only be able to open branches in the country, therefore with a separate legal entity and established as a Myanmar-based company.

A possible alternative for foreign banking companies will be to invest in local banks, up to the 35% of the shared social capital.

However, the legislation of the former military government continues to weigh on Myanmar's banking sector. Sean Turnell (economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi) said that the biggest obstacle lies in the rules that set the interest rates by law at 13% for loans with collateral and 16% for unsecured loans. This prevents customers in a low risk class from being adequately assessed and rewarded. The deposit rate is also set by law at 10%. According to Turnell’s words, the government aims to eliminate those limits in the near future.

A further obstacle is also represented by the cultural barriers that still exist in the country. Citizens have scarce confidence in the banking sector and prefer to store physical currency or store wealth in the form of gold and jade. In fact, 90% of Myanmar citizens do not have a bank account.

However, also in Myanmar as in the whole ASEAN, digital wallet services are beginning to spread (the first being Wawe Money in 2017), which could allow a rapid evolution of the mobile financial services market, despite the important regulatory barriers still in place.

Despite the steps forward, however, investors remain concerned about the stability of the country, the lack of transparency in the decision-making processes and the poor coordination between the various levels and institutional bodies which are responsible for issuing licenses and permits to operate in the Country.

However, the proactivity shown by the government in recent years seems to be going in the right direction. The country can also count on a great availability of workforce, low production costs and the wealth of natural resources, as well as commercial links with the dynamic economies of ASEAN.

Articole edited by Gabriel Zurlo Sconosciuto

Failed constitutional reform attempt in Myanmar

The Union, Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Tamtadaw militaries block Suu Kyi's reforms

On 10 March, Myanmar's parliament began voting on the constitutional revision law, strongly supported by the National League for Democracy, party of the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The parliamentary opposition of the Tamtadaw militaries and the USDP is tough but effective. The Burmese Constitutional Charter entered into force in 2008 and guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in parliament. It also guarantees them a majority in several state committees, one above all the National Defence and Security Council. The Charter itself provides for a three-quarters majority for the constitutional revision process, a majority which, de factowithout the military's vote is impossible to achieve.

Thus, the parliamentary opposition of the Tamtadaw militaries and the USDP was effective In the first days of voting, in fact, the two main proposals of the reform were rejected: the one concerning the reduction, gradually and over 15 years, of the seats assigned to the Armed Forces and the one finalized to amend Article 59 of the Constitution, which denies citizens with relatives of foreign nationality the possibility of competing for the Presidency of the Country. It is precisely the latter provision that represents the most important obstacle for Counsellor Suu Kyi, widow of the British Oxford University scholar, Michael Aris, and mother of two children with British citizenship. The two proposals reached respectively 404 and 393 "yes", therefore not enough to reach the 75% of votes in favour required by the Constitution.

Another fundamental aim of the constitutional reform is reducing the majority necessary for the revision of the Constitutional Charter from three quarters to two thirds.

The boycott by the military and the USDP had already begun a few months ago, when the members of the two sides had left the Amendment Committee, a body which was supposed to study and prepare the new institutional structure of Myanmar. Their aim is surely to arrive at the next elections with the current constitutional structure, limiting the power of the National League for Democracy.

The United States and the European Union have been waiting for years for a turning point in the country which, despite the great expectations placed in Aung San Suu Kyi, are struggling to arrive. Myanmar is 'under observation' on issues such as money laundering and human rights violations against ethnic minorities, one of which is that of the Rohingya, a Muslim majority group persecuted and, for this reason, forced to take refuge in Bangladesh. China and Japan are not of the same opinion and, in a continuous "regional dispute", do not miss any opportunity to strengthen relations with the country.

This attempt to reform the institutions, with the aim of definitively reducing the power of the army, seems to have foundered. For the moment, everything is postponed to the next national elections scheduled for Autumn 2020.

Article edited by Alessio Piazza