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Watching Before Moving Further on Burma

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 21, 2011

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with people outside the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office after a meeting in Yangon November 18, 2011.

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with people outside the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office after a meeting in Yangon November 18, 2011 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

With the announcement that Secretary of State Clinton will be traveling to Burma in early December, the first visit by such a high-level U.S. official in five decades, U.S.-Burma relations are actually moving so rapidly that it is hard to keep up with the change — something I never thought I would find myself writing about Burma. But in anticipation of the visit, it’s important to critically examine how to proceed from here. The government of new president Thein Sein already has presided over more opening than any Burmese government in at least two decades, but the administration should be watching these key markers to see that reform is continuing to progress:

  1. Does Thein Sein continue to have the backing of the important power centers – the senior military, the parliament, and key ministries? For now, it appears he does, but despite the army commanders’ claims that they support the president, their loyalty remains uncertain. Many top commanders still owe their rise to former Senior General Than Shwe. However, some of the senior military see that, if they continue to support reforms, they might wind up being nominated for president or other top positions in the next election, due in 2015. However, other senior officers reportedly fear that, if reforms continue, they will wind up being punished for the army’s past crimes. Thus, the United States and other foreign actors need to more closely assess the stability of Thein Sein’s power base. In the early 2000s, the United States and other foreign actors were caught largely by surprise when a potential reformer, Khin Nyunt, was sacked. In retrospect, Khin Nyunt had never really built the power base he needed to succeed.
  2. On a day-to-day level, how well is reform being implemented? Burma is a sclerotic, poorly-functioning state, so some level of a failure to implement new policies, such as economic privatization, relaxation of censorship, or greater professionalization of the military, is to be expected.  But too often in the past, laudable goals set by senior leaders – on combating pandemic disease, for example — were then completely undermined by a clear unwillingness to implement them on the ground. Does Thein Sein have the “buy-in” of the Burmese state? How much do officials and bureaucrats fear implementing his reforms, worrying that at some point the reforms will be reversed and those who implemented them will be punished?
  3. Beyond Aung San Suu Kyi, what kind of freedom do average members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) have to operate in areas of the country other than Rangoon and Mandalay? The Obama administration, like previous U.S. administrations, have made much of their policy contingent on Suu Kyi; the president noted in speaking about Burma last week that Suu Kyi essentially supported greater engagement. To be sure, Suu Kyi, like Nelson Mandela before her, is a critical symbol, but judging the reality of whether the NLD and other opposition parties can operate today requires a much broader lens. Suu Kyi, in reality, is exempted from some of the government’s harshest treatment. The United States and other foreign actors need to push to get into the Burmese countryside, and into smaller cities and towns, and closely observe how freely and effectively opposition parties can set up party offices, canvass, and make speeches.
  4. How does the Burmese government respond to initial outreach from the United States, Europe, Australia, the UN, and Japan? Besides the United States, other democracies may now unblock more aid, boost diplomatic relations, and generally engage more closely with the Burmese government. In previous eras, Burmese governments have shown that they were really interested only in using the outside world as leverage against China (and Thailand) because, after the initial détente with the West, relations cooled again.
  5. How serious is the government about resolving its conflicts with ethnic militias? The Burmese government has pushed for new talks with the ethnic militias, as well as the formation of a peace committee that would meet and help to resolve the conflicts. But at the same time, it has taken a tough approach to groups like the Kachin Independence Organization. And while much of the country seems energized by Thein Sein’s reforms, the ethnic minorities in the north and northeast are actually more unstable than they were just a year or two ago. Without a resolution of these conflicts, no real systemic change is possible in Burma

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Don Jameson

    Dear Josh: Nice comment. Of course there is also the view that we should never have put ourselves in this position by isolating Burma in the first place, which largely had the consequence of cementing the hardline generals in control for the past twenty years and derailing any opportunity for gradual reform, as well as economic development which would have benefited the masses of the Burmese people. We are now making positive gestures toward Burma largely because Aung San Suu Kyi is telling us it is time to do so. But she also may have ulterior motives, not least the fact that she is now 65 years old and this may be the last opportunity she will have to play an active role in shaping Burma’s future. So she has a strong incentive to put current developments in a positive light. Let’s all hope, for the sake of the Burmese people, who are inured to following strong leaders, whoever they are, that she is right.

  • Posted by LD

    Re the comment from Jameson: When you refer to “economic development which would have benefited the masses of the Burmese people” are you referring to, for instance, the partnership between Chevron, Total and the regime? According to the IMF, the regime has been booking gas export revenues into the national budget at the “official” rate of 6 kyat to the dollar, instead of the real rate of more than 800. The money appears to be going into private bank accounts in Singapore. A valuable natural resource gets exported, the revenues shared between foreign multinationals and brutal generals, the owners of the resource getting nothing. Not to mention the extensive criminal abuse suffered by the people in the project area, a few of whom received compensation from Unocal in settling a lawsuit, but most of whom received nothing.

    To speak of “economic development” without recognizing the realities of the environment in which it is to take place seems rather a waste of time. Reality: 2nd most corrupt in the world (according to Transparency International), bottom ten in the world (Heritage Foundation index of economic freedom), etc. etc.

  • Posted by Derek Tonkin

    Re LD’s comments. The State Oil and Gas Company MOGE is a partner with Chevron, Total and Thai PTTEP in the Yadana project. So the State earns their share of natural gas revenues. This used to be deposited in a MOGE account in Singapore, but no longer. No doubt it now goes into overseas bank accounts in several countries wherever the State needs it.

    The acid test for the new administration is whether, in the 2012/2013 Fiscal Year budget, Parliament or the Military will decide on its utilisation. We shall have to wait and see. The revenue has previously been booked for record, not planning purposes into the National Accounts at the “official” rate, but that is likely to change soon as the unification of exchange rates is now a top priority and the IMF have already concluded their first Article VIII Consultation.

    As the State already has physical possession of the revenues, they don’t need to cook the books. Like State revenues from oil and gas sales almost anywhere in the world, they could be seen as a milch cow for State projects, however extravagant. In Britain the horse-racing industry would collapse, were it not for the support of Arab racehorse owners with access to oil and gas revenues. Let us hope at least that in Myanmar from 2012 they will be spent for the benefit of the Burmese people.

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