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Professor Sees Myanmar Changes Firsthand

Fulbright Recipient Encouraged by Reforms

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The people of Myanmar have experienced recent, dramatic improvements in civic freedom, as witnessed by political science Assoc. Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung.

By Sandra Seitz

What a difference a year makes. 

Ardeth Thawnghmung, associate professor of political science, has conducted research in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for more than a decade. She recently completed a J. William Fulbright Faculty Research Abroad grant for 2010 - 2011 in that country. 

During the year, she witnessed the first steps toward a free civil society after decades of repressive rule by the military regime.

“The international community was skeptical about the November 2010 national elections and considered them rigged,” says Thawnghmung. The first elections held in 20 years, the process allowed only parties approved by the government. Not only did the government-backed party win a majority, the constitution guarantees that the military will hold 25 percent of seats in national and regional parliaments.

“Nothing will change – that was the opinion of observers,” she adds. 

But dozens of parties did participate, representing a spectrum of groups and political positions. More surprisingly, the outgoing leader of the regime, Than Shwe, withdrew from public life. The new president, U Thein Sein, has proved to be relatively progressive. 

“This was a complete surprise,” says Thawnghmung. “I cannot even keep track of all the new reform policies coming out every day.”

Surprising, Steady Change
For the first time, the government formed a presidential advisory committee to seek advice from technocrats, academics and policymakers. The regime signed ceasefire agreements with armed resistance and opposition groups, including the resistance wing of the Karen, the second largest and most widespread of the ethnic minorities. 

The authorities have started inviting exiled opposition members to return. Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been released from house arrest and is standing as candidate for a by-election. 

The international community has responded. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the nation in December, meeting with Suu Kyi and government officials. In January, the U.S. restored full diplomatic relations.

Thawngmung says, “We must give credit to civil society organizations – village leaders, political parties and community-based agencies – that are playing a role in policy development and mobilizing support for reforms. People are emboldened. They have more confidence in their ability to exert some pressure at the grassroots level.” 

A New Research Role
With new conditions come new opportunities. 

“For the first time I was able to give a public lecture on democracy and civil society, with reference to the current situation,” says Thawnghmung. “In my whole life, I have never seen this level of political freedom.”

Thawnghmung’s recent research resulted in a book, “The ‘Other’ Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle Without Arms,” published by Lexington Books in January 2012. 

Now she has turned her attention to understanding how poor people live their lives, including the different coping strategies used in different regions. By sharing her knowledge, she says, “I can work not just as a scholar, but as an active participant in the process of building capacity.”

Why We Should Care
“The majority of people in Burma think the United States has the capacity to intervene for positive improvements in the country,” says Thawnghmung.

“Because of the international sanctions, the government has been cozy with China over the past two decades and Chinese business interests are widespread in the country,” she says. “Now the leaders want to build other alliances to balance the influence of China.” The United States has a similar interest throughout Southeast Asia.

“This is the right time to help because the process of political reform is already happening through society-led and state-led initiative,” says Thawnghmung. “For a small investment, the U.S. would get a big return.”