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Myanmar’s slow path to democracy

Obama should take steps to help the country avoid further backsliding

November 15, 2014 2:00AM ET

President Barack Obama concluded his two-day trip to Myanmar on Friday by meeting with the country’s main opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Part of Obama’s swing through the western Pacific, the visit is his second to the country since taking office. The president’s return lends symbolic credence to Washington’s desire to engage one of the world’s hitherto most recalcitrant and insular states.

Since Obama’s historic visit in 2009, the gradual opening up of Myanmar has been held up as one of his more significant foreign policy successes. It is important that his administration continues to carefully maneuver to cement the progress that has been made.

His willingness to embrace the leadership in Naypyidaw reflects a range of fundamental domestic changes that have taken place since Myanmar was returned to nominally civilian rule in 2011. Over the ensuing three years President U Thein Sein’s military-backed government has embarked on a path of fundamental political, social and economic transformation in an effort to normalize the country’s regional and international relations.

Some of the more notable developments include efforts to empower the legislature and provide for a more competitive electoral process, amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners, economic reforms to attract outside investment and foster equitable growth, commitments to unshackle the press and promote access to the Internet and the conclusion of comprehensive accords to end the armed campaigns of at least a dozen ethnic groups.

While these steps are welcome, Myanmar faces a number of stark challenges in overhauling a state infrastructure that for many years was one of the world’s most reclusive and repressive. Poverty and underdevelopment remain widespread. The government has yet to establish a true set of checks and balances on executive power. Years of self-enforced isolation have left the country with an acute lack of institutional capability, including functioning ports, railway, roads and a viable national electricity grid. Illicit drug trafficking, much of which is connected to the activities of former insurgents, persists as a major problem along the border with Thailand — an issue exacerbated by a legacy of abuse and corruption in the security forces. Finally, the regime’s ongoing, highly discriminatory policy toward the Rohingya minority (Muslims in Rakhine state who are effectively not recognized as Myanmar citizens) is increasingly serving to tarnish Naypyidaw’s image on the international stage as a caring and inclusive government.

Navigating these issues will be not be easy. For example, unless it is properly managed, a crackdown on the drug trade could easily upset the tentative peace deals reached with Shan, Kachin and Wa warlords that are needed to convince overseas companies to invest in the country. Adopting a more humane approach to the domestic integration of the Rohingya is equally vexing, as it is liable to inflame Buddhist nationalist chauvinism, which is already exhibiting dangerous signs of metastasizing into an internal security threat in its own right.

A failure to carefully guide Myanmar’s successful transition to a civilian rule would be a missed opportunity for the Obama administration.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy’s lackluster performance is another factor that could impede Myanmar’s transition to democracy. Since entering parliament two years ago, she has been hesitant to take on some of the country’s most pressing national concerns, such as its environmental degradation and largely dysfunctional educational system. She has also been reluctant to confront the government on its harsh treatment of the Rohinyga, despite her advocacy for human rights. Some have been interpreted these failings as political expedience, and they bode ill for the development of a healthy and vibrant opposition in the country.

The opaque intentions of Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, underscore all these difficulties. While senior officers have so far accepted Thein Sein’s policies, his political and economic reforms have thus far not intruded on the security portfolios and institutional independence of the armed forces. It remains unclear whether the Tatmadaw will ultimately accept civilian control and the concomitant democratic constraints on its power that this will entail. The military may insist on provisions and safeguards that preserve its ability to exercise significant behind the scenes influence in governing the country. This would be damaging, since it would leave the Tatmadaw in a position to privilege its ranks at the expense of Myanmar’s democratic gains.

The Obama administration should make a concerted effort to help Naypyidaw avoid further backsliding. Washington has much to gain from blunting the various spoilers that could unravel the reform process in Myanmar. A successful transition to accountable, transparent civilian rule will entrench the country’s position as a productive partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Community, which is due to be inaugurated next year and which will undoubtedly have significant effects for regional intergovernmental collaboration. Domestic stability will open up a large investment market and help stymie the production and trafficking of opiates and amphetamines — both of which fit squarely into Washington’s wider economic and security priorities for Southeast Asia.

The Obama administration can take at least four practical steps to support further changes in Myanmar. First, it should speed up the process of repealing the business sanctions that remain under the 1997 National Emergencies Act and were imposed in reaction to the government’s large-scale crackdown on the democratic opposition. Second, the White House should reinstate the generalized system of preferences that was withdrawn in 1989; this would allow a wide range of imports from Myanmar to enter the United States duty-free. Third, bilateral military cooperation should be gradually expanded through apolitical, noncontentious channels such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to foster greater professionalization in Myanmar’s armed forces. Fourth, the president should support the enhancement of judicial capacity and law enforcement to address the drug trade and other transnational threats of mutual concern.

Myanmar is at a key strategic location between South and Southeast Asia and has substantial economic potential. The U.S. and its allies must act decisively and provide a strong foundation for the country’s long-term transformation. A failure to carefully guide Myanmar’s successful transition to a civilian rule would be a missed opportunity for the Obama administration and, more important, for Myanmar’s 51 million citizens.

Peter Chalk is a senior analyst with the Rand Corp. in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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