Despite the headlines, progress in Myanmar isn't slipping away
Despite the headlines, progress in Myanmar isn't slipping away
Rebel Governance: Adapting to a changing Myanmar (Panel event, 6 october 2023)
Rebel Governance: Adapting to a changing Myanmar (Panel event, 6 october 2023)
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Despite the headlines, progress in Myanmar isn't slipping away

Is Myanmar’s reform effort going into reverse?

Not even close. Yet if international support for its political transition seriously weakens in the face of recent setbacks, the prophecies of Myanmar’s critics may be fulfilled. The international community needs to show staying power and accept that the road to reform is long.

Myanmar is four years into a transition from 50 years of authoritarian rule and chronic, grinding civil conflicts. That change was never going to be easy. We should not be surprised that certain areas remain problematic or new difficulties arise.

Bad-news stories about Myanmar’s transition are easy to find. But the good-news stories reflect a broader trend. There is now substantial freedom of the press, for example, when not long ago there was no space for independent media. Nearly all political prisoners from the era of military government have also been released.

President Thein Sein and senior military officers last month held an unprecedented conference with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures. Economic reform is producing growth, which is starting to deliver genuine benefits to the population, including jobs and inexpensive communications. Elections next year hold the promise of deeper democratization.

The obstacles are still large. Journalism remains a risky trade. Buddhist chauvinism continues to threaten the unity of Myanmar’s diverse polity. The military retains a disproportionate share of parliamentary power while Aung San Suu Kyi is legally prohibited from contesting the presidency.

And then there is Rakhine State, where Muslim communities, including the Rohingya, face persecution and discrimination from the Rakhine people and the government.

The state has not done a particularly good job handling this. Yet it is also true that the problems are exceptionally difficult. Rakhine State contains a toxic mix of enduring center-periphery tensions, serious intercommunal and inter-religious conflict with minority Muslim populations, extreme poverty and underdevelopment.

The entire Rakhine community has been wrongly cast, at least internationally, as violent anti-Muslim extremists. This narrative ignores the diversity of opinions that exists and the fact that the Rakhine are themselves a long-oppressed minority.

In some ways, it has been a blessing for Myanmar that it has figured so prominently in U.S. foreign policy. American and Western pressure helped strengthen the hand of reformers. When Western sanctions began to produce diminishing returns, Washington rightly changed tack and engaged, showing that China was not Myanmar’s only option for a friend. Myanmar could even enter into the international marketplace, whose investors and customers it desperately needed.

In other ways, however, the U.S. focus has been a burden. The opening to Myanmar was lauded as a victory for the Obama administration and perhaps is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leading achievement.

But President Barack Obama is now viewed as a lame-duck, with a surfeit of enemies and a resurgent Republican Party controlling both houses of Congress next year. Clinton is a likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. Anything she might take credit for – like the opening to Myanmar — will be attacked.

The Myanmar people deserve better than to have their fates caught up in Washington’s partisan politics at this fraught juncture. Transitions take a long time. (Consider the Arab Spring.) They can require the commitment of a generation or more.

Some in Washington are calling for new sanctions on Myanmar. But remember, Obama and Clinton decided to review U.S. policy on Myanmar in his first term because of bipartisan agreement that isolation and sanctions were not working. Something else, they decided, was needed. There was agreement on that. So something new was tried — and it is working.

Sanctions advocates should also consider Myanmar’s region. The country is not surrounded by well-functioning democratic governments untroubled by domestic conflict. To some degree, Myanmar, because its recent successes are so associated with Western — and especially U.S. — engagement, faces higher expectations than those applied to neighbors, which have had a good deal more time to find their own ways forward.

The West has a choice: Whether to stand on the sidelines and withholding support until there is a perfect outcome in Myanmar, or to engage in the messy but vital business of working with Myanmar as it changes from a closed authoritarian country to a more open, democratic and prosperous society.

When Obama offered a hand to Myanmar in 2011, it was the beginning of a long journey. It is one the United States and the international community would be best advised to continue.


Former President & CEO
Senior Adviser, Myanmar

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