YANGON, Myanmar, Oct. 4 (UPI) — Myanmar may be inching toward democracy but Western countries should remain vigilant that nascent reforms are genuine, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said.
In a rare face-to-face interview with foreign media, Suu Kyi told the BBC’s Myanmar service that the jury is out on whether the nominally civilian government is serious about democratic reforms.
The BBC correspondent asked her whether she thought the wheels of democracy were turning.
“There are signs that President Thein Sein, a former senior military ruler, wants reform but it’s early days, she said.
“I think I’d like to see a few more turns before I decide whether or not the wheels are moving along,” she said.
“We are beginning to see the beginning of change. I believe that the president wants to institute reforms but how far these reforms will go and how effective these will be, that still needs to be seen.”
Suu Kyi said the international community should coordinate its monitoring of events in Myanmar closely to see whether there was real and sustainable progress.
“I’ve always said that the more coordinated the efforts of the international community are, the better it will be for democracy in Burma (Myanmar). If different countries are doing different things, then it detracts from the effectiveness of their actions.”
Her comments come after the government, elected last November and installed in March, appears increasingly concerned about its public image, both at home and abroad.
Last month Myanmar set up a Human Rights Commission, a brief report in the government newspaper New Light of Myanmar stated.
The formation comes after the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called for an independent commission during a recent visit to the country.
The report said the commission was created “with a view to promoting and safeguarding fundamental rights of citizens described in the constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”
Analysts said it remains to be seen if the commission will challenge the government.
One of the most prominent signs of government concern over its public image was the announcement last week to stop construction on the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone hydro dam, which would have created a reservoir four times the size of Manhattan.
Suu Kyi was among the conservationists, environmentalists and others opposing the project. Objections ranged from a lack of transparency to the project’s potential environmental impact.
The structure, at the head of the Irrawaddy River, was scheduled to be complete in 2019, would be, at 500 feet high, one of the world’s tallest dams.
The economic repercussions for Myanmar if the dam isn’t completed could be great. It’s being built and financed by a Chinese company and 90 percent of the electricity will go to China.
But the dam also is in an area of conflict between the government and ethnic minority insurgents with whom the former junta — from which many of the government members come — had a modus vivendi for many years.
The insurgents, however, were concerned the dam would harm their traditional lands and the local people would not reap any financial benefit.
Halting construction gives the government some breathing time to discuss the area’s future with ethnic minority leaders who want more local autonomy.
Sein, who is suspending construction only during his term which ends in 2015, extended an invitation in August to each rebel group to enter into a dialogue about the area’s future.
But the ethnic groups rejected the government’s invitation, saying it was a divide-and-rule tactic.
A recent report by the think tank International Crisis Group said Western countries should engage the new regime in Myanmar to encourage it to continue with reforms.
The briefing paper “Myanmar: Major Reform Underway” suggests that Sein “has moved rapidly to begin implementing an ambitious reform agenda first set out in his March 2011 inaugural address.”
ICG also noted that Sein had met his main political rival, the populist Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy advocate Suu Kyi in an effort to show the country is moving toward more transparent government.