Trevor Wilson was Australia’s ambassador to Burma from 2000 to 2003, a period in which the military junta’s grip of power seemed absolute. The generals had successfully crushed two student protests in 1996 and 1998, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest twice, the second time after a junta-created organisation attacked her convoy, and every single piece of news, song lyrics or movie script had to undergo censorship.
Wilson remained actively involved in Burma after retiring from diplomatic service, becoming a Visiting Fellow on Myanmar [Burma] at the Department of Political & Social Change at the Australian National University in October 2003. He continues to visit the country often and has written – and continues to write – numerous articles and papers on Burma’s recent transition.
Myanmar Now chief correspondent Thin Lei Win spoke to Wilson on the sidelines of a conference on ‘Elections and Ethics’, organised by the Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung in Naypyitaw on 25- 26 September, and asked him how Burma has changed since the end of military rule and what further changes the elections could bring.
Question: How has Burma changed compared to when you were first here?
Answer: You can’t imagine how difficult it was before. In 2000, you couldn’t meet anywhere if there were more than 5 people. It was not allowed. People couldn’t publish anything without censorship.
Freedom of expression is something that has really happened. Freedom of association, meaning freedom to organise associations and meetings and to protest about things, has also changed a lot. I think sometimes people who are organising the protests are doing it deliberately to get a ‘no’ answer, and they protest and get arrested. And often the officials who are meant to be approving a request for a march or meeting won’t answer because they’re not sure what they’re supposed to say. There’s still the hangover from the old thinking there.
When I was here in 2010, people who were legally registered as candidates – not from major parties but as independents – weren’t sure what they could do or couldn’t do. They’d try and have a meeting at a neighbour’s house, for example, and the neighbours were frightened they might be arrested or intimidated if they attend. It was really difficult. I still think there’s something of that left, from what I hear. But that can change.
There’s much more acknowledgement of things like corruption and narcotics trafficking and people trafficking. It started to improve when I was here before, around 2000. I remember when the Burmese government was trying to bring in anti-money laundering legislation. They had seven drafts of the law and some kind of public consultation at every stage. Not a proper consultation like you and I would know, but there was an attempt, even then.
There’s a lot more small businesses and private enterprises being set up now. A lot more economic activity. When I was here working (as an ambassador), they re-opened the universities. The students would graduate quite quickly but there were no jobs.
Q: What has not changed?
A: The impunity of the military and the challenging of military abuse of power hasn’t changed very much. There’s a little bit of improvement but not much and not enough. The military is still confiscating land that they want to use for their own purposes. It’s pretty disappointing. The army is still behind the scenes and still pretty much in control. There are lots of things to be positive about – they’re not so uptight and negative as they used to be but … the army won’t allow anybody to restrict them.
The court system haven’t changed either. So you still have these corrupt judges and inept judges.
Traffic in Rangoon is worse, but the streets themselves haven’t changed much.
The thing that hasn’t happened as much is prosperity, or that even a small increase in prosperity hasn’t been felt very widely. There’s probably no good system for redistribution of the benefits of economic growth. Policy systems and government administrative systems haven’t really developed very much to improve health and education and other things. Redistribution of health has not progressed much at all, I’d say. So the country looks poorer than it should’ve been.
Q: How do you think history is going to judge Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi?
A: I don’t think history will ever re-evaluate Aung San Suu Kyi. She’ll always be regarded as a bit of a saintly figure. I know a lot of Burmese people who think she’s politically inept, and selfish even. But that’s been the situation for quite a while. The international media on the whole don’t want to report that.
Thein Sein, I think, has been underestimated and under-valued. His problem is that some of the things he’s trying to do haven’t been fully carried out and properly implemented so the good results are not as numerous as they could be or should’ve been.
I think he’s actually been extraordinarily smart and capable. I’ve always written that all the changes, all the reforms, really came from him. He oversaw the drafting of the Constitution and there’s freedom of expression in the Constitution. Of course, it has to be implemented so you need other laws or regulations, but I think he’s tried to do things a bit differently.
They have done a few things, like the exchange rate. People always said they would never manage to do that but they did and they did it quite quickly.
Q: Yet some have said that most of the things the government has done have been ‘low-hanging fruits’ that would have been possible under another government as well.
A: Might have been, but some of the things were intended to have better results than they got. Allowing trade unions and workers to protest for better working conditions, for example.
The implementation of some of the reforms or the benefits that’s supposed to flow through the system, in terms of increases in wages … some of those didn’t happen quite as much as they should have or could have. And I think that’s probably slowed down to economic development, particularly amongst that class of urban residents who didn’t have enough money to own a business or property.
So people coming to Hlaing Thayar and all these places, they could work for a wage. They learnt quickly but they wouldn’t have progressed a lot. Very hard for them to earn enough money to buy a house, for example. Some of those further developments of economic reforms just didn’t come through. They could have and should have. I don’t know what’s the answer to that. But that’s certainly held up Burma’s economic development.
If you compare within countries in ASEAN, Burma’s still right down the bottom with Laos. Laos is a piddling little country – 4 million, 5 million people. Totally poor and very few educated people and still communist. Burma by every measure should be doing a lot better than Laos and they should’ve made some progress on that in the last three or four years, but they don’t seemed to have (done that).
Q: You once wrote that Aung San Suu Kyi has been co-opted by the military. Do you think that has paid off for her?
A: I don’t think that has been to her disadvantage because people haven’t picked up how that co-option or co-optation worked. It’s in her interest not to discuss it publicly so she doesn’t. I actually think she was better in the parliament in some kind of way and that’s a smart political move by Thein Sein. I don’t know that he wanted anymore out of that. Maybe he didn’t.
She could have and should have done more. But rule of law is a very difficult area and the court systems haven’t changed.
Q: You said in your speech that the proliferation of media is one of the most encouraging factors for Burma’s political development.
A: I always found it fascinating that Burmese people love politics. I don’t know why, because it’s always been pretty bad. They love their newspapers or their media. You see people sitting on the street reading newspapers, or listening to their radio. So I actually think the media environment and the role of media in Burma is quite an asset if you’re trying to bring about federalism or democracy, or get rid of corruption.
Q: Yet when we talk to ordinary citizens, many seem to be apathetic towards the elections.
A: After 2010 (elections), I don’t blame people for being apathetic. People need to believe in the electoral process, but the results of the 2010 elections in Burma would not generate confidence in elections anywhere. It reinforces people not to believe in elections being the answer to everything.
That’s something you have to overcome. And you can only overcome that by having a good election.
I think this time a lot of people have done a lot of preparation. I’ve written that Burma has never been better prepared for an election because of all the practice and training and education and campaigns that have been going on by all the international agencies, including the Carter Centre, IDEA, IFES, and so on.
We’ve never had that before. These people have been here for two or three years. This is not an overnight commitment. They’ve been here working and now created this whole network of local election monitoring organisations. I think that’s fabulous.
Now it doesn’t guarantee any particular election results and the results could still be very disappointing for ordinary people.
The other thing is, if the election results gives the National League for Democracy (NLD) the government, their management of the government could also be not good. So what does that do for the elections? I don’t know. But you have to go through with it. There’s nothing much you can do to avoid that. People want to have their say and they’re entitled to that, especially if they pay taxes.
I have no idea how it’s all gonna go from here. The NLD seems not to be as well prepared as they might be. I think it’s still very popular. I’ve got no problem with that. And until they’ve had a go at running the government, we’ll never know. They might be more responsive to the people’s interests.