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Myanmar’s President Gets Peace Award While the Country Burns

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 30, 2013

Myanmar's President Thein Sein talks during a meeting with representatives from civil societies at the Yangon Region Parliament Building in Yangon on January 20, 2013. Myanmar's President Thein Sein talks during a meeting with representatives from civil societies at the Yangon Region Parliament Building in Yangon on January 20, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

On April 22, at a packed, black-tie ceremony in New York City, the Myanmar president, represented by minister Aung Min, accepted an award from the respected global NGO International Crisis Group for the “pursuit of peace.” The award, given annually by the group, is meant to honor someone who promotes change and reform, and helps end violent conflicts, like the ones that have ranged along Myanmar’s borderlands for decades.

Over the past three years, since Myanmar began its transition from one of the most repressive military regimes in the world to a civilian government, such honorifics—both for civilian President U Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, freed from house arrest and able to travel the world—have become common. While only three years ago, nearly every leading democracy maintained strict sanctions on Myanmar, and portrayed the country as an isolated land run by a thuggish regime, now foreign donors, investors, and officials are rushing into the country and portraying Myanmar as the next giant emerging market and example of democratic change.

In its annual report on human rights, released last week, the U.S. State Department noted, “Burma [the old name for Myanmar] continued to take significant steps in a historic transition toward democracy … its democratic transition, if successful and fully implemented, could serve as an example for other closed societies.”

Yet neither the cartoonish portrayals of Myanmar in the past nor today’s idyllic pictures of Myanmar’s future are correct.

While the country has taken important steps towards democracy, its opening also has unleashed dangerous forces that, in recent months, have led to scores of violent attacks against Myanmar’s Muslim minority. Overall, at least 100,000 Muslims have been made homeless in the past two years by violent attacks on them and their homes, and hundreds if not thousands have been killed. Left unchecked, with Myanmar attempting to make the transition to democracy from one of the most repressive regimes on Earth, this rising ethnic hatred and attacks could turn the country into at twenty-first century version of post-Cold War Yugoslavia.

Read more of my new piece on Myanmar’s challenges here.

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