Elephants in the Room
Trump Should Help Finish Myanmar’s Transition to Liberal Democracy
Myanmar could become the next Indonesia, with the White House's help.
If looked at in the long term context, Myanmar is a good news story. It has the potential to be a democratic, prosperous country with a friendly orientation toward the United States if the United States and its allies remain engaged. After embarking on an historic reform process in 2010, today Myanmar boasts the most pro-American government in 70 years. This government is looking for significant U.S. financial assistance, diplomatic advice, military support, and greater trade links. The Trump administration should build on the progress made by the Obama administration in support of Myanmar’s “triple transition”: moving from dictatorship to democracy, from a planned economy to a market economy, and from civil wars to peace.
Myanmar was isolated for decades and has begun to open up only in the last ten years. A British colony for more than 100 years and administered as part of the Indian Empire, Myanmar’s history weighs heavily on modern policies. When then-Burma became independent, the military took on a large role and ran the country for 70 years until the first democratically elected government took power in April 2016. When Secretary Clinton visited Myanmar in 2011, it represented the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in more than 50 years.
China has sold arms to Myanmar for decades and is its largest private investor. In 2008, China built infrastructure to a port at Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal as part of its One Belt One Road strategy. Recently, China overplayed its hand, creating an opening for the West. In one instance, the Chinese planned to construct the Myitsone Dam, which created an uproar in part because the electricity generated would have gone largely to China. The military-backed government decided to “indefinitely postpone” Myitsone in 2011, the first time one of its client states had told China “no” to such a large project. The Myitsone episode, among other factors, encouraged the former military junta to move away from economic, political, and military dependence on China.
The late 2015 elections in Myanmar were seen as largely free and fair. It is hard to believe but 110 former political prisoners are now members of the Myanmar parliament. The elected government is in control of the former opposition, National League for Democracy (NLD) the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous human rights activist. However, the bad news is that the new government does not have full authority. The military controls three key ministries and is carrying out all military operations. As part of the constitution, the military also holds 25 percent of the parliament’s seats and has veto power. Additionally, the new government — not the military — is blamed for human rights abuses despite NLD’s limited ability to fix these problems.
International human rights activists supported Aung San Suu Kyi as a human rights icon when she was a prisoner. As a politician in a nascent democracy, she faces new challenges, and her political stances have disappointed or angered the international community. Her detractors abroad say that she is not vocal enough about the very serious human rights problems in Rakhine, including the military-backed mass killing of Rohingya Muslims. Suu Kyi faces pressure from the military, as well, who claim to be fighting armed extremists. One diplomat said that her dilemma in Rakhine state was similar to John F. Kennedy’s dilemma on U.S. segregation in 1961, and that we should see her political constraints in a similar light.
Myanmar’s government faces three major challenges: economic growth, conflict and illegal drugs. Though Myanmar flirted with socialism for several decades and made a series of bad economic policy decisions, today it is facing different challenges to economic growth alongside some promising opportunities. Later, Myanmar moved to a “crony capitalist” economic model with very heavy involvement by the military in the economy. Now Myanmar is quite interested in opening up its economy and there is significant interest from Japan in building infrastructure and providing aid. Another diplomat told me that the media in Myanmar is the freest in South East Asia. There has also been a proliferation of cell phones in less than 10 years. A decade ago it cost 1,500 U.S. dollars for a SIM card to power a cell phone, a price set by the military to keep information out of the hands of people. Today a SIM card goes for around a US$1.50 and there are nearly as many cell phones in Myanmar as people.
Myanmar has several on-going conflicts (at least four by some accounts), the most well-known of which is between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine communities. Like most conflicts in the region, the core issues between the communities relate to minority rights such as language, greater ethnic minority self-governance, and decades or even centuries of grievances. One of the steps needed is a form of federalism where states are given a larger say in their own affairs. This could be at a decade or more away.
The Rohingya are not considered Burmese citizens by the government and are, in essence, stateless persons. The government argues that the Rohingya are really Bangladeshi immigrants; the Rohingya argue that Muslims and the Rohingya people have been in Rakhine state since time immemorial. The Burmese military and Rakhine citizens have committed atrocities against the Rohingya and the United Nations recently issued a human rights report on the plight of the Rohingya. There are various estimates about the size of the Muslim community in Myanmar, though most agree it is less than 10 percent. Kofi Annan is leading a fact-finding process to better understand and create medium- to long-term solutions for the problems in Rakhine. It is clear that solving these challenges will also take a decade or more.
The continued suppression of the Rohingya could open the door to Islamic radicalization. The U.N. report interviewing Rohingya refugees has received a large amount of international press attention; as a result, the conflict could also deter foreign direct investment and put international support for Myanmar at risk.
Myanmar is also a source of illegal drugs in Southeast Asia. Heroin trafficking has sadly experienced a renaissance in Myanmar after the country opened its borders. The U.N. estimates that Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of heroin, as well as a leading supplier of methamphetamines. Revenue from opiate production and sale is estimated at $2 billion annually. The lack of formal financial channels — bank accounts, credit cards, or digital payment systems — and the country’s reliance on cash transactions make drug sales especially hard to trace.
The best case scenario for Myanmar is to follow the path of Indonesia — a relatively prosperous economy with a relatively successful multiparty, multiethnic democracy. If Myanmar’s political, economic, and security transitions fail, it could become the source of a number of dangers to the United States including illicit drug production, drug resistant malaria (which would cost the world millions of lives and billions of dollars), Islamic radicalization and endless humanitarian and security headaches. With a bit of attention, the United States and its allies can influence what is happening in Myanmar for the better and seek to push it towards an “Indonesia scenario.”
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