As if U.S. President Barack Obama does not have enough to worry about, the politics of traveling to Myanmar in early November for the East Asia Summit only becomes more complicated.
Myanmar’s transition to democratic governance got off to a good start in March 2011 under President Thein Sein, spurred further by the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament in a by-election a year later. Now in its fourth year, the transition — often cited as one of the few bright spots in Obama’s foreign policy performance — is starting to look messy. Global opinion about Myanmar’s transition has soured in recent months, providing a fresh source of ammunition for critics of the Obama administration.
A key driver of current criticism is a steady stream of reports about alleged human rights abuses by forces in the country ranging from the military to religious extremists. The most prominent concerns focus on the Rohingya population in Rakhine state, near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh — a Muslim minority of roughly a million people, more than 100,000 of whom are living in refugee camps following clashes with the Buddhist majority in the state. Other charges include the killing of innocent civilians by the army during operations against armed ethnic groups in Kachin and Shan states, the displacement of families due to land-grabbing by powerful interests, and the jailing of journalists for alleged political offenses.
The government is also accused of backing away from a commitment to make the political system more democratic. A campaign by Suu Kyi for constitutional amendments that would enable her to become president following elections expected in November 2015 seems to be running into a brick wall. Parliamentary by-elections planned for December 2014 to fill vacant seats have been cancelled (although the reason given — that the costs exceed the benefits — is arguably sensible). Moves to replace the first-past-the-post parliamentary electoral system with a proportional representation system that might hamper Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, seem to be gathering steam.
Underlying these oft-repeated concerns is the relative absence of development progress in rural Myanmar, where 70% of the population resides. The economic transformations of almost all other East Asian countries began with reforms in the agriculture sector that removed obstacles to raising production and boosted household incomes. The Thein Sein government has mixed token reforms with a wrong-headed strategy focused on output, which has only succeeded in widening the gap between the expectations of the rural population and the reality of their everyday lives.
Many foreign “friends of Myanmar” seem to believe that the administration should have been able to achieve a high standard of good governance within three years. The reality is that Myanmar’s transition is more chaotic this year than last year. One of the main causes is the flood of foreigners who continue to swarm into Myanmar like locusts: politicians angling for a selfie with Suu Kyi, aid officials pressing ministers to sign project agreements they do not understand, foreign investors promising jobs but interested only in profits, international nongovernmental organizations convinced that they hold the key to Myanmar’s future well-being, reporters fishing for a scandal that will please their editors and many more.
The greatest harm from this flood of outside interest is that it takes up time that Myanmar officials should be spending to formulate and implement the policies required for a successful transition. Like most premodern countries, Myanmar has a bureaucratic culture in which delegation of authority is minimized. Astonishingly small issues get shunted up to Thein Sein and his cabinet ministers, who appear to spend much of each day receiving foreign visitors. Little time is left for the vital business of assessing policy options, and almost none for implementing policy choices. The ultimate tragedy would be seeing the transition derailed because Myanmar had received too much foreign attention.
Now for the good news
There is progress, however, not least in resolving Myanmar’s existential challenge: ending the civil war that began at independence in 1948 between the country’s Bamar Buddhist ethnic majority and the dozens of ethnic minorities living in its mountainous borderlands. Two years of negotiations for a national ceasefire may bear fruit before the end of this year, possibly before the summit. The sticking point is the next step: a proposed national dialogue leading to a peace agreement and constitutional amendments to create a more devolved federal system.
There is other positive news that should not be discounted. A mobile phone network is being built at a breathless pace with the aim of raising penetration from less than 10% of the population to 80% by the end of 2015. This could have a transformational impact beyond any seen elsewhere in the world. With the suspension of most financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other Western countries, the banking system is improving rapidly, paving the way from a cash-based economy to a modern credit-based economy. The country’s first census in 30 years was carried out this year, revealing a total headcount of 51 million instead of the 60 million reported by official estimates. Wisely, the government has decided not to announce the ethnic breakdown of the population until after the 2015 election, because the results could provoke civil disorder.
Confounding many analysts, Myanmar has done a creditable job as this year’s chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Numerous high-level meetings held in the new capital, Naypyitaw, have been carried off without complications, which augurs well for the summit and its related meetings. The Thein Sein government has also managed to keep the agenda from being derailed by the issue of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, as it was two years ago with Cambodia in the chair.
Some say that nothing fundamental has changed in Myanmar: that the new regime is old wine in a new bottle, with the military still in full control and preoccupied with advancing its narrow self-interests. It is true that the possibility of a Thai-style military coup cannot be ruled out, but it is hard to believe that the Myanmar people will give up the liberties they have tasted over the past four years. It is equally hard to believe that the military would be able to crush a popular uprising, as it did in 1988 and 2007.
It may be that there will be more chaos in 2015 than in 2014. But that should not be an argument for the West to reimpose sanctions or pull out of the country. Transitions from authoritarian rule are inherently messy, and the global economy is much less supportive than it has been over the past 50 years because of weak growth, beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies, and political turmoil that discourages investors. What Myanmar needs from its foreign friends is fewer demands, more space to establish a solid policy framework for progress, and more tolerance of fixable mistakes on the way to building a just and prosperous society. All this argues for a minimalist approach to Obama’s appearance at the summit. He can be most effective by simply assuring the Myanmar people that the U.S. will continue to support their exceptionally difficult transition.