Asia Society’s Vice President of Global Policy Programs Suzanne DiMaggio discusses the leaders of Myanmar’s reform process, the role of U.S. sanctions, and the challenges ahead. She and Priscilla Clapp are the co-authors of Advancing Myanmar’s Transition: A Way Forward for U.S. Policy.
Who are the leaders of Myanmar’s reform process?
Much of Myanmar’s transition can be attributed to three individuals: President Thein Sein, Speaker of the Lower House Thura Shwe Mann, and National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi. President Sein’s now famous March 2011 inaugural address acknowledged the deep-seated problems in Myanmar for the first time and outlined his intentions for reform. Not long after, he invited Aung San Suu Kyi to the capital for a face-to-face meeting. This demonstrated his seriousness toward reform and reconciliation. Thura Shwe Mann, a former senior military commander, has taken a lead in transforming the parliament into an active and functioning political institution. And, of course, there’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been a steadfast voice for democracy for decades. In the April 1 by-elections, she won a seat in the parliament. One of the key challenges ahead will be to map out a program of reform to unite these three leaders.
Many anticipated that the parliament would only be allowed to function as a rubber stamp in support of government decisions. How has the parliament developed over the past year?
To the surprise of many, the parliament has taken on a much more expansive role, which includes holding the government accountable for its decisions and actions. For example, in March 2012, Myanmar’s budget was made public for the first time and parliamentary debates and intense scrutiny followed. We now see some MPs pushing for a more socially responsible budget, with a larger focus on government expenditures in the areas of health and education. Transparency in the budget process is a completely new phenomenon and the parliament is now playing a watchdog role.
What are the key challenges ahead in Myanmar’s transition?
One of the biggest challenges facing President Thein Sein’s government is to lift the country’s poorest people out of abject poverty. The reformers need to demonstrate in real terms to the people of Myanmar — as well as to their adversaries — that their efforts are gaining rewards. In a poverty-stricken country of 55 million people and an output per capita of about $850, delivering improvements in living standards for ordinary citizens will be a key test.
Another enormous challenge is addressing long simmering ethnic and religious conflicts. President Thein Sein is leading this process, which currently includes managing 10 ceasefires with 10 different groups spread over 1,000 miles of territory. The Kachin are the last remaining group with which he is seeking a ceasefire agreement. The plan is to then move towards a comprehensive peace plan.
What role have U.S. sanctions played in bringing about reform in Myanmar?
The debate over what role sanctions have played in bringing about the remarkable turn of events in Myanmar will continue for some time to come. One thing we can be sure of right now is that increased U.S. engagement and a loosening of sanctions are helping to spur on the reform process underway in Myanmar. In response, there has been bi-partisan congressional support for the administration’s use of its waiver authority to ease many economic restrictions against Myanmar, while maintaining sanctions on the military. In February, the U.S. granted a partial wavier to allow international financial institutions to conduct assessment missions in Myanmar. The Treasury Department issued a general license for educational and non-profit institutions to support development and humanitarian projects in April. In May, the U.S. announced that the ban on U.S. investments and export of financial services would be suspended. Because the U.S. is suspending rather than rescinding certain sanctions, the possibility remains that they could be re-imposed if progress in Myanmar stops or reverses.
Greater U.S. economic activity in Myanmar will go a long way towards promoting durable economic reforms — which are currently being outpaced by political reforms — and help to create the necessary foundations of a market economy, build up the rule of law, reduce corruption and advance transparent investment, and strengthen economic policy-making institutions.
What future direction should the U.S.-Myanmar relationship take?
Over the past year, the United States government has been following an “action for action” approach towards Myanmar and, as such, U.S. policy has been by-and-large reactive. Looking ahead, the United States and Myanmar must work together toward a bigger goal — one that will enable the two countries to get beyond the transactional nature of the current relationship and move towards greater normalization. We need to recognize that Myanmar’s transition to a democratic system and an open economy after decades of authoritarian rule and isolation will not happen overnight. It will be an imperfect process that will take time. The United States should do all that it can to be a reliable partner to Thein Sein and his government as they move forward on this transformative journey.