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In an unprecedented move the Burmese government has invited all parties, opposition and government-aligned, that competed in the November polls last year to give their input on reforming the country’s struggling economy.
A three-day workshop will begin tomorrow in Naypyidaw, run by the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. Burmese academics and economists living abroad are also permitted to attend.
It marks one of the first all-party, extra-parliamentary sessions in Burma’s recent history, and accompanies several recent developments that signal the government may be opening up to the political opposition.
“This is a good sign – it implies that the government is now accepting the fact that political parties should be included in economic reformation [talks],” said Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force (NDF).
Rumours had circulated that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be invited to the workshop, but her National League for Democracy party has not confirmed this.
Today the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper carried a speech by President Thein Sein in which he made the most high-level public acknowledgement of the new government that Burma’s economy was struggling.
Ministers have long placed the blame for Burma’s low ranking on human development indices on Western sanctions, which have been in place in various forms since the mid 1990s.
Proponents of sanctions claim however that they do not hurt Burmese civilians, and point to the fact that less than three percent of annual spending goes towards healthcare and education, while a quarter is channelled to the army.
Khin Maung Swe said that the NDF had already drafted economic policy and hoped to offer its suggestions during the workshop. A number of opposition parties have complained of repeated stonewalling in parliament, but their invitation to Naypyidaw suggests the government may be more open to discussing state policy.
One of the key figures due at the talks is U Myint, whose appointment to the government’s economic advisory board in April raised eyebrows: a former senior economist with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP), U Myint is a known political moderate and friend of Suu Kyi. In a December 2009 report he stated that Burma’s economic stagnation was “disturbing”.