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Is This a Meaningful Milestone for Myanmar/Burma?

Myanmar has a new government as of March 30. But the people who insist on calling the country Burma—the name given by its British colonial rulers—also insist that nothing has changed.

With so many more urgent matters to attend to, at home as well as overseas, it is worth asking why Americans care about what the country is called or whether General Than Shwe—who has ruled the country since 1992—is less in control of the country today than a month ago.

The simple answer to why Americans care about this long-suffering country of 50 million people is Aung San Suu Kyi—one of the most recognizable and admired personalities on the world stage today. In 1990, the generals who preceded Than Shwe made an astonishing mistake: they allowed the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi to win a national election by a landslide. Then they compounded the mistake by disavowing the results of the election and keeping Daw (the standard honorific in the Burmese language for an older woman) Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past 20 years.

Even worse, although Than Shwe sensibly abandoned the socialist economy of his predecessors and started opening the economy to international trade and investment; military units under his command committed human rights violations from one end of the country to the other; he presided over the destruction of a once fine education system; he neglected the public health care system; and he brought the agriculture sector to the verge of crisis. Today Myanmar is one of the poorest, unhealthiest, most miserably governed countries in the world.

However, every story has two sides. By comparison with Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi, Than Shwe seems to be managing the process of succession rather well. Back in 2003, he approved a seven-step roadmap to a “discipline-flourishing democracy.” Remarkably, the first six steps were carried out in sequence and the last step is now the task of the new civilian government (admittedly dominated by retired generals). The Constitution of 2008—drafted by a National Convention with no effective civil society input and approved in a blatantly rigged referendum—nevertheless introduced two remarkable changes. First, in addition to a bicameral national legislature, it created assemblies for seven regions (for areas with ethnic Burman majorities) and seven states (for areas dominated by ethnic minorities). Second, it enabled winning candidates from opposition parties to be seated in all of the national and sub-national chambers.

When the “new government” was sworn in on March 31, Than Shwe was no longer the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and no longer in uniform. He announced that henceforth he should be addressed as U (the standard honorific in the Burmese language for an older man) Than Shwe. So far, it looks like a pretty smooth transition to a new generation of leaders.

Than Shwe was also so successful in developing the country’s offshore gas fields that the country’s foreign reserves have soared from almost nothing a decade ago to a comfortable level today equivalent to more than seven months of imports. And parallel oil and gas pipelines are now under construction across the heart of the country—from an Indian Ocean port to China’s Yunnan Province—that are expected to more than double the government’s hard-currency export earnings.

There is much more to both sides of the story, but the bottom line is that Americans care about Burma because Aung San Suu has been denied the victory her party won in 1990 and because she and more than two thousand political prisoners, and indeed most of the rest of the population, have suffered horribly under Than Shwe’s whimsical and tyrannical approach to governance.

And now we are witnessing a mind-numbing debate between the proponents of tightening sanctions on the new government of Myanmar and proponents of taking steps to normalize relations with it (as long as it avoids committing new crimes against humanity).

The unvarnished reality, however, is that it does not matter whether the United States imposes more sanctions or pursues more engagement. The United States is too far away and Myanmar is considered too inconsequential in the current global context.

Sitting in the heart of Southeast Asia, strategically between China and India, Myanmar’s future will be shaped by its relations with these rising powers and with its partners in the 10-nation ASEAN Community. And the United States has some long-term interests in Asia that will not be sacrificed in a vain attempt to export democracy to Burma and make Aung San Suu Kyi the country’s leader.

The best strategy the United States could adopt to alleviate the suffering of the people of Myanmar may well be to align itself with the Asian countries—neighbors and partners—that have the most to gain from seeing Myanmar follow the path toward prosperity and democracy that they have followed so successfully.