Myanmar races ahead as we (Thailand) back-pedal

All eyes have been on Myanmar this week as it finally voted a new president, Htin Kyaw, into office, in so doing becoming the latest debutante into the democratic club. A close aide (for many he is a proxy) of democracy icon Aug San Suu Kyi, who is blocked from taking up the role due to constitutional hurdles, Htin Kyaw is the first civilian leader of the country since 1962.

The new Myanmar government faces high expectations. We know the multi-ethnic country of 60 million, with chronic problems of ethnic tensions, will not turn into a fully fledged democratic society overnight.

Yet, I would like to personally congratulate Myanmar citizens. I wish the country peace, sustainable prosperity, with economic and social equality, not just to be a new investment hot spot for foreign investors. Myanmar needs to deal with investors scrambling to make use of its abundant natural resources.

China, Japan, Singapore and Thailand have invested in numerous infrastructure projects, many of them dams, industrial estates and mines. These projects pose threats to the environment and livelihoods of local indigenous people. How the National League for Democracy and the Lady, Mrs Suu Kyi, respond to these challenges remains to be seen.

Myanmar has made progress not only in politics, but also on environmental issues. The Myanmar military government early this year passed regulations on environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures. This legislation was launched with the support of the Asian Development Bank.

Those involved in drafting laws have learned from the experiences of other countries in the region. The new legislation stipulates transparency and participation by all stakeholders. Those violating the law can face fines ranging from US$1,000 to $5,000 (35,000 to 175,000 baht).

New developments involving our immediate neighbour leave us feeling left behind. Our military government is doing something quite the opposite to Myanmar. Early this month, the National Council for Peace and Order issued order No.9/2559, which allows developers of state infrastructure projects to bypass EIA procedures on entering the bidding process.

Critics say the NCPO order will pressure the state committee tasked with EIA scrutiny to approve projects in haste.

But the regime defended its move, citing the benefits of huge investments. About 20 megaprojects worth 1.6 trillion baht, covering water management and highways, railways and mass-transit development will be fast-tracked.

Needless to say, the new process will put some environmentally sensitive areas such as Mae Wong National Park — proposed as a dam site — and other spots in jeopardy given that the mandatory EIA study will be compromised to speed up the construction.

In politics, it is clear that Myanmar is marching forward and we are back-pedalling. Our new constitution does not give us much hope. The NCPO said it wants all senators to be appointed, with the possibility of a non-elected prime minister.

Our human rights and freedoms are less than inspiring. Indeed, gross human rights violations were committed during the tenures of democratically elected governments, especially under former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

But violations have become more rampant in the wake of the May 2014 coup. Hundreds of dissidents have been charged and tried in military courts, without the chance of appealing. Those who disagree with the regime are summoned for a “coffee break” with the army, or have “attitude adjustment” sessions.

The climate of fear intensified when the government declared a new policy to track down 6,000 influential people. At first glance, it seemed to be good news. But when the government drafts its own hunting list, we know a kangaroo court is being set up.

At the same time, the world has lauded the Myanmar junta government for releasing political prisoners over the past few years. Apparently, Myanmar is trying to scrub away its image of a totalitarian state ruled by an authoritarian “Big Brother” as in George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984.

At this stage, the new government in Myanmar is a hybrid between civilians and military men. But as the power struggle continues we hope Big Brother in Myanmar will soon belong to the past.

However, Big Brother flourishes in places where there is divisiveness, and which are full of irrational, insecure people. From Myanmar, Big Brother can be found just across the border.

 

Source: Bangkok Post

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