Video: Myanmar's Democratic and Economic Reforms Are 'Underappreciated'

Thant Myint-U and Priscilla Clapp discuss the upcoming elections in Myanmar and the change in the country’s political atmosphere that has taken hold since the political reforms of 2011-2012. (3 min., 2 sec.)

Asia Society Museum’s history-making exhibition, Buddhist Art of Myanmar, opens February 10, 2015, in New York. Exploring Buddhist narratives and regional styles, Buddhist Art of Myanmar is the first exhibition in the West to focus on art from collections in Myanmar. Learn more

Are Myanmar’s political reforms beginning to unravel or “backslide,” as some Western observers have suggested? In a discussion at Asia Society New York this week, historian and Yangon Heritage Trust founder Thant Myint-U and former U.S. Chief of Mission to Burma Priscilla Clapp argued that Myanmar has moved a long way toward a democratic system and an open economy since reforms began in 2011. What has changed is the pace of reform, not its direction.

“The first two years of change created unrealistic expectations because [they] happened so fast and so unexpectedly,” said Clapp, who serves as a senior advisor to Asia Society. “And all they’ve done is slowed down. They haven’t continued the pace of change that they started those first two years.”

Thant Myint-U traced abrupt shifts in outside narratives about Myanmar, noting that the democratic reforms of 2011-2012 were widely seen as “some kind of miraculous transformation that was unexplainable.”

Several years later, when reports emerged of communal violence or clashes between the army and armed insurgent groups, “People began to wonder whether that initial sense of a euphoric change was actually right,” he said. “Whereas I think in reality, the changes that took place in 2011 and 2012, some of them have very long roots.”

Thant Myint-U took pains to explain that the ongoing ethnic conflict in Rakhine State between Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority has lasted for 50 or 60 years, while the recent communal tensions have short histories going back to the start of the democratization process. The clashes between ethnic rebel groups and the government, which are the subject of a recently-signed draft ceasefire agreement, constitute another type of dispute.

“In the media there is a tendency to conflate all of these things. And they’re very different,” he said.

Clapp suggested that communal tensions and violence in Myanmar have occurred because Burmese “society itself has not developed the mechanisms and the institutions to negotiate [its] differences.”

“It’s not a modern society. It’s almost a feudal society. And they’re being forced into the 21st century very fast,” said Clapp.

Tom Freston, the board chairman of the ONE Campaign, noted that Myanmar also faces the challenge of integrating with today’s global economy.

“There’s this irresistible narrative that this is one of the last big [untapped] markets of the world,” said Freston. “But it’s a very naive view. It’s a country with an infrastructure that is poor, that is getting rebuilt.”

Freston observed that when Myanmar first opened its economy to foreign investors and companies, it had had “no ability” to accommodate them. Since then, he said, “[Economic reform] has moved much more slowly than most corporations would want.”

However, Freston said, foreign businesses are learning how to operate in Myanmar: “Smarter corporations are moving in there, they’ve adjusted their expectations, and we’re seeing that change.”

Freston underscored the need for Myanmar’s government to increase its spending on healthcare and education, given that one-third of the population lives “in extreme poverty.”

Ticking off a list of economic reforms, from unifying the exchange rate and creating a banking system to making the central bank autonomous, Clapp said Myanmar has “made some tremendous progress on the economic side, and I think it’s very underappreciated.”

“They have to learn a different way of doing business,” Clapp said. “The more Western business gets involved there, the more they’re going to move in the direction of becoming a modern economy.” She noted that many factories set up by Western companies operate under Western codes of conduct and labor standards.

Looking ahead to the general elections that are scheduled for late 2015, Thant Myint-U said Myanmar’s observers have “reason to be optimistic.”

“I think you will see relatively free and fair polls,” he said. “I don’t think the big picture is going to change. The country is going to slowly come out of its isolation, it’s not going to move backwards into military dictatorship, [and] there is going to be economic growth.”

Clapp echoed his sentiment, saying that Myanmar is “embracing democracy, trying to understand what it is.”

“The place has become intensely political,” she said. “I’m not sure that the supporters of the democracy movement […] outside understand that the whole environment is so different today.”

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Joshua Rosenfield is Director of Content Strategy with the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is based in New York.