Myanmar's Stumbling Democratic Transition
Myanmar's transition to partial democracy after five decades of sclerotic military rule had been one of Asia's most hopeful developments this decade. But optimism for the Southeast Asian country has faded. An ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority has resulted in the flight of several hundred thousand to neighboring Bangladesh and attracted international opprobrium. Economic growth, too, is falling short of expectations, as corruption and a severely underdeveloped infrastructure has limited investment and prevented needed reforms from taking place.
The struggle of Myanmar to overcome its problems has tarnished the reputation of its most famous citizen: the iconic Nobel Peace laureate and de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi. Known simply as "the lady" throughout the country, she has disappointed admirers by refusing to condemn the atrocious treatment of the Rohingya. On Wednesday, former Governor Bill Richardson resigned from an advisory board on the Rohingya crisis with a letter that bluntly criticized Aung San Suu Kyi.
Here is Bill Richardson's full statement. pic.twitter.com/9jfUWXOBIQ— Jonah Fisher (@JonahFisherBBC) January 24, 2018
What's gone wrong? Former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell noted that the country is still largely dominated by the military, which controls 25 percent of parliament seats as well as key ministries and portfolios and is still Myanmar's "only functioning institution."
"[The Myanmar government has] degraded all the others," he said on Wednesday at Asia Society. "They don't have a government or bureaucracy that functions well. They have civil society and activists with ideas, but they're still learning."
Mitchell added that the problems for Myanmar begin with the country's very essence.
"They don't have a fundamental answer to the question of identity," he said. "Who are they as a country? What are the foundational principles?"
And while less critical of Aung San Suu Kyi than Richardson, Mitchell said she was "not as worldly as we hoped she might be in understanding how to be a politician for this moment."
Mitchell appeared on a panel discussion comparing Myanmar's democratic transition with those with Indonesia and Japan. The complete video from Wednesday's program is below.