Luminaries smelled blood. Hillary Clinton, Kevin Rudd, and David Cameron came and went, openly advocating for continued democratic reform. All met with Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi. In the aftermath of grandiose state visits from such luminaries to Burma (officially known as Myanmar), Aung Sun Suu Kyi and military leaders face a long and difficult task to bring about political, social, and economic reforms in a country that has remained under a brutal military junta and isolated from most of the world since 1960.
In politics, relationships matter less. Interest matters most. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, a high-ranking Republican, recently expressed his glowing enthusiasm and hopes for the reform in Burma. He thought Burma is on the path to achieve something that once seemed impossible. Ironically, Sen. McConnell is also the “architect” of the economic sanctions against Burma. The U.S. and Western interest in Burma is palpable in light of Burma’s strategic geographic location, its ties with China, and its natural resources. The integrity of this interest must be tested against what is really at skate for Burma.
The path to reform is an opportunity for Burma and its citizens to restore human rights and democratic values, to open trades, and to transition into a civil government. Democratic reform ought to take place in the context of Burma’s own social, economic, and political conditions. But effective reform depends on various factors.
First, the people’s voice must be empowered over the military rulers. Years of military dictatorship has separated Burmese people from its rulers. Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 out of 45 electoral seats in March, and she will have a seat in the parliament. Though the army still controls 80 percent of the seats, the mere presence of Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi in the parliament will change the dynamics of the political scene. Most importantly, she will represent the people of Burma.
Second, seek trusting support from the military leaders who believe in reform. The power and influence of the military cannot be ignored nor can it be removed hastily from national power. Thein Sien and Thein Htay, both from the military, have committed to building infrastructure, tackling corruption, ending human rights issues, and other development issues. Burma cannot afford to lose this momentum of commitment and support from the military.
Third, extend and establish trade with the foreign partners. Burma is rich in natural resources. Despite prolonged sanctions from the West, Burmese military rulers continued to trade with China, India, and ASEAN nations. The economic sanctions did not have the same effect as it did against North Korea. The point is sanctions do not always prevent the ruling party from gaining economic means. Given Burma’s abundance in natural resources and a competitive labor market, the reformers must seek bilateral trade and promote foreign investments in Burma to create growth.
Fourth, Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi must be recognized as a legitimate leader. She is a true symbol of and the power behind Burma’s democratic reform, and military generals must work with her to ensure she remains that way. If reforms unfold, she is in a position to be elected the leader of the country, where her fame, persona, popularity, and leadership can propel Burma into a stable democratic state.
However, for Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi and the Burmese military generals, the reform may come at a price – dealing with foreign interests. Burma is strategically important to the U.S. and the West, but it does not have the economic strength to revive its post-reform economy alone. Burmese reformers cannot give in too much nor can they afford to be too rigid. So, Burma faces external and internal threats to its democratic reform.
Threats - Inside and Out
Burma’s relationship at the nexus between the U.S. and China is a political concern. During the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. used Burma as a political battleground to deter China from expanding its influence, but times have now changed - China, then, did not own U.S. debts. The U.S. and its Western allies must reconsider their views towards the Burma-China relationship. The Burmese reformers and their Western counterparts must push for a renewed diplomatic and trade relations between China and Burma.
Internally, Burmese military generals are powerful, wily, and well trained, some even by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). However, the transformation of power within military is slow but visible. According to a report by Bangkok Post, 54-year-old Min Aung Hlaing, who is “part of a younger generation of Burma generals,” has presumably taken over the army. This is a welcoming sign for democratic reform. A hasty move to oust military from power would be counterproductive.
Burma’s strategic importance is crucial to Western diplomacy. It must use it wisely and effectively to build social, political, and economic infrastructure to spur growth, reduce unemployment, and extend democratic rights to its citizens. Luminaries may soon return for a revisit to a new Burma.
This article was originally posted in Diplomatic Courier.