Myanmar protests painful but inevitable part of democratic transition

By Yu Jincui Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-3 20:25:06

A group of about 50 protesters caught my attention on the way to visit a friend in Yangon. They were holding posters, loudly shouting slogans in unison in front of a white three-floor building, the headquarters of a local mining company. The Myanmese translator told me that judging from their slogans, some operations by the mine blocked a local road, and thus irritated the local villagers.

When I visited the working site of a project invested in by a Chinese company in northern Sagaing division, over 100 local workers, including two monks were sitting in front of the company's camp, calling for a larger-scale strike and demanding higher salaries.

Including the still ongoing protests against Letpadaung copper mine project, jointly developed by China and Myanmar, I witnessed three protests during my recent seven-day trip to Myanmar.

Over the past few months, especially since Thein Sein's reformist government approved a bill allowing authorized peaceful protests earlier this year, the number of protests has surged. Workers and villagers both have taken advantage of the new freedom to express their pent-up dissatisfaction. In some cases, human rights groups or opposition parties have provided aid.

The Letpadaung protests are the largest and most significant ones. Several months of slow boil brought the issue go far beyond just seeking more land compensation for local villagers. Locals want the project suspended and Chinese enterprises to be kicked out of Myanmar.

The challenges of appeasing the protesters while protecting and encouraging foreign investment and job creation make solving the issue tricky.

The contract to develop the Letpadaung mine was signed in 2010, under the approval of the Myanmar government. Opposition leader and parliament member Aung San Suu Kyi, who was chosen to head an investigation group into the project on December 1, admitted the necessity of defending the country's credibility during her visit to the mine to meet both the company side and protesters in late November.  

Just like other countries in transition, Myanmar is undergoing democratic pains. Multi-ethnic groups, the tradition of highly revered monks' involvement in political causes and the accumulated dissatisfaction or even hostility against the military government in the past decades, all determine that the expression of diverse public interests in an open Myanmar may take extreme forms.

Even in Western countries with a mature democratic system, balancing political pluralism and government efficiency is a difficult problem. In Myanmar, the government is still in dire need of credibility and public support and lacks the ability to maintain order in the face of radical protests.

I once talked with a Myanmese scholar. He was quite proud that Myanmar had moved into democratic transition through a relatively modest way compared with those countries in the Middle East which underwent the Arab Spring. But the full process hasn't played out yet.

Fully realizing the transition will be a painful and complicated process. Myanmar should reflect on to what extent those radical political and interest expressions would disturb the order and thus pose threat to democratization.

Myanmar nowadays is considered a hot target for foreign investors. Ensuring an orderly and safe environment for investors is critical to whether those observing Myanmar with interest will pour their money in.

Talking to Myanmese on the streets at random, the English word mentioned most frequently is "democracy." However, it seems that what democracy means to the ordinary people is quite different from what it means to political activists.

Hla Tun, a 55-year-old gatekeeper for a foreign company in Yangon, used his broken English to say democracy is "money improving and good life." In a country where poverty is widespread, the fundamental cause of their longing for democracy is the hope of improved livelihood.

Myanmar will see more conflicts since there is freedom for people to vent dissatisfaction and express political opinions. Ensuring order and allowing economic development to benefit the majority will be the key to its democratic transition.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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