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Myanmar Military Largely Untouched by Reforms


In this Sept. 17, 2014 photo, a member of Myanmar’s Lower House with a silk turban known as a "gaun baun," leaves Myanmar’s Upper House in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. The civilians elected to Myanmar’s bicameral legislature are required to wear hats when taking the floor. Their appointed military colleagues are not. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

In this Sept. 17, 2014 photo, a member of Myanmar’s Lower House with a silk turban known as a "gaun baun," leaves Myanmar’s Upper House in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. The civilians elected to Myanmar’s bicameral legislature are required to wear hats when taking the floor. Their appointed military colleagues are not. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)


Many changes have taken place in Myanmar over the past few years. The government has eased restrictions on the media and released political prisoners. Foreign investment has risen in Myanmar, also known as Burma. But there have been few changes in the country’s armed forces.

Myanmar is now preparing for elections in 2015. Myanmar’s economy has experienced major changes in recent years. Government controls on the economy have been reduced. The country has a new banking system and new land policies. In addition, the value of the nation’s money is now decided by the market -- not the government.

These steps and others have helped bring an estimated nine billion dollars in foreign investment to Myanmar since 2011.

Economist Sean Turnell says the many changes have made the economy more functional to improve operation. But he says they have done little to change the military’s influence in both the economy and in politics.

“In a movement toward some new government reform after 2015 that issue of the military and its role, will it be the central actor? Will it give up some of that economic control? Will it step back in any way, a meaningful way, that really needs to happen? That’s really the big question.”

In Myanmar, the military still controls the country’s largest businesses. It also controls most of the country’s most profitable industries, such as natural gas exploration and gemstone mining.

The military has almost as much economic influence as it does political power. Twenty-five percent of all seats in parliament are set aside for military appointees. That gives the armed forces veto power over all constitutional changes.

This has meant little accountability -- or willingness to accept responsibility -- when military forces are accused of rights abuses.

Last month, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic released a report on Myanmar. The report accused four military officials of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005 and 2006. The four include current Home Affairs Minister Major General Ko Ko.

Matthew Bugher is Harvard’s Global Justice Fellow in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. He says there is enough evidence to order the arrest of the four officials -- but no charges. He says until top military officials are held responsible in a civilian-controlled justice system, the military will continue to act without fear of punishment.

“The military has set down their foot down, and said that they aren’t willing to address their conduct, and they’re threatening people who do try to address that. We think that reformers in the government and opposition politicians who may want to deal with these issues haven’t taken a strong enough stand to address human rights abuses and address military conduct. We also think the military is promoting rights abusers up the chain of command and into primary positions.”

Myanmar’s political opposition has gained seats in parliament. But the opposition has been unable to end the military’s influence.

Critics have wanted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out. Critics say the Nobel Peace Prize winner has failed to push for accountability. Some say she has avoided disputes with the military in the hopes it will improve her chances as a possible candidate for president.

Myanmar’s generals are defending their continuing influence in the country. They point to the rebellion by ethnic fighters in some parts of the country. Myanmar spends 23.2% of its national budget on the military, the highest percentage in Southeast Asia. The military says the money is used, in part, to fight groups that reject the government. But outside observers say the military’s business interests are partly to blame for the rebellions.

Harvard’s Matthew Bugher says the military’s economic interest in conflict areas is partly to blame. He says those interests are stretching out the peace process and reducing trust in the government and military.

Last month, government troops shelled a training ground for ethnic minority troops, killing 27 soldiers. The attack came just one day after peace talks had ended.

The government of President Thein Sein wants to get a ceasefire in place throughout the nation before the elections late next year. A change in Myanmar’s constitution would be needed to reduce the military’s influence in government. Last month, military representatives made clear their unwillingness to amend the constitution before 2015.

I’m Bob Doughty.

This report was based on a story from reporter Gabrielle Paluch in Bangkok. George Grow wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Jeri Watson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

changes - n. the process or results of making something different

economy - n. the system by which money, industry and trade are organized

influence - n. the power or ability to have an effect on someone or something

profitable - adj. making money from a business activity

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