The Myanmar Moment? Why Washington Made Its Move

For some time now, human rights and pro-democracy activists in the West have waged a tireless campaign against the military regime that in one way or another has controlled Myanmar (the former Burma) since Ne Win’s coup in 1962. Since 1995, activists have urged tourists to boycott the country, and for years numerous governments in the West, most notably the US and members of the EU, have levied sanctions of one sort or another against individual generals, various Myanmar banks, and, at times, Myanmar exports in general. The goals may be laudable, but the activists, for all their intense interest in Myanmar, seem to be behind a curve whose outlines should concern them deeply—the fact that the current government appears to be turning its back on almost fifty years of authoritarian rule.

Although the military, a hard bunch, is still firmly in control, it is becoming increasingly clear that at least some of the factions in the civilian-military coalition that won the 2010 elections are now pushing in a variety of ways to open up the country economically, socially, and politically, including a relaxation of media censorship and the creation of a National Human Rights Commission. To be sure, these signs of movement are likely the result of internal politics within the ruling elite and efforts to reduce the country’s reliance on China rather than pressure from outside activists, much less a belated conversion to Western democracy. Nonetheless, there is movement, and the fact that the Obama administration and the EU over the past few months have also begun to move toward engagement with Myanmar—manifested especially by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to the country—is a good sign. In committing to engage, the West would at once signal to Myanmar’s rulers that their behavior is being positively acknowledged and also align the West more closely with the responses of virtually all of Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia (including, most notably, the two Asian elephants, China and India). That such engagement would fit in well with recent efforts by the US to check China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia is hardly a coincidental consideration either.

With change afoot in Myanmar, it seems a good time to consider why this country—among dozens of authoritarian nation-states—stuck so deeply in the craws of Western activists in the first place and why the military junta there proved so intransigent for so long. A good starting point is the fact that at least until recently the generals—unlike liberal Burmese dissidents living in exile, their Western supporters, and their left-leaning leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—have seemed disdainful of Enlightenment values, the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, and modern-day liberal conceptions of political culture and human rights.

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Yet over the past two decades there have been a number of equally authoritarian—indeed, more authoritarian—countries around the world that the West has had little trouble abiding and even supporting, which suggests that the problems for the generals in Myanmar grow out of two additional facts: first, unlike the rulers of some other authoritarian nation-states, they seldom even paid lip service to liberal democracy, and second, their principal opponent is Aung San Suu Kyi, a brave, charismatic, and photogenic Nobel Peace Prize winner, who graduated from Oxford, speaks British English, and lived in the West for much of her life.  

The Fund for Peace’s 2011 “Failed States Index,” published by Foreign Policy, put seventeen countries above Myanmar. Why weren’t activists marching against Chad, the Central African Republic, Guinea, Niger, or Burundi? Or even against Nigeria (#14) or Kenya (#16)? To be sure, a number of criteria go into the mix in the “failed states” rankings, but a bit more perspective when it comes to Myanmar is clearly in order. And once we move beyond truly “failed” states, there are plenty of other thuggish regimes with which the US has long had decent relations. For example, depending on whose estimates you employ, somewhere between 2.7 million and 5.4 million deaths resulted (directly or indirectly) from the horrifying war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1998 and 2008. Where were the Western protests then?

The differences between Myanmar and some of its superficially democratic neighbors on the mainland of Southeast Asia—Cambodia and Laos, most notably, but in some ways Vietnam and even Thailand—can be exaggerated. Let us use Thailand, the “land of smiles,” as a case in point. There were thousands of extra-legal murders condoned or at least ignored by the Thai government under Thaksin Shinawatra—roughly 2,275 people killed under orders of government authorities in the first three months of 2003 alone. Yet in 2007 the Western media that had largely ignored this bloodshed immediately jumped on the wildly exaggerated claims by activists and exiles that “hundreds, or even thousands” of people were slaughtered by agents of the Burmese government during the “Saffron Rebellion” of September and October that year, when the actual death toll was likely somewhere between thirty and forty, according to careful assessments done by people ranging from Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, UN human rights envoy to Burma, to University of Washington political scientist Mary P. Callahan, writing in New Left Review (hardly a friend to authoritarian violence). I’m not equating Thailand with Myanmar but merely suggesting that, metaphorically speaking, the political distance between the two neighbors is less than 180 degrees.


With these caveats in mind, the most appropriate and certainly realistic criterion by which to judge whether or not to engage Myanmar may not be the degree to which Myanmar meets Western democratic norms but the degree to which the military begins to play a modernizing role in this developing country, a role similar to that played by the military in South Korea and in Indonesia while these countries were trying to develop in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Indeed, it can be plausibly, even convincingly argued that in each of these cases the platforms established and maintained by the military during those authoritarian decades contributed significantly to later economic and social progress. And it is quite possible that the military in Myanmar—in combination with President Thein Sein’s political faction—is beginning to play a similar role.

For many years, the generals in Myanmar were less interested in playing a modernizing role than in using state power for private wealth accumulation and for facilitating monopoly rents. That said, even critics of the generals would concede that they were also fiercely nationalistic and concerned, for better or worse, with keeping whole a dangerously fractured nation-state. And no reasonably objective observer could fail to attribute a large part of the country’s problems to British imperialism and its legacy, to the devastation of World War II, and to Cold War–related interference by outside powers during the immediate postwar period (including covert military operations in the country by the US under Claire Chennault et al. throughout the 1950s), all of which rendered Burma terribly unstable. Given the country’s history over the past two centuries, then, it’s not totally surprising that the generals are suspicious of the outside world. Even paranoids have enemies, as the saying goes.

These considerations don’t excuse the generals’ economic record, which over the years has been dismal, but again some perspective is called for. Although accurate economic and social data are hard to come by for Myanmar, comparative economic and social data contained in a recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) report, Basic Statistics 2011, published last May, suggest that the country, for all its problems, still outperforms a number of the forty-five Asian countries included on a range of relevant socioeconomic metrics, particularly those relating to economic growth rates, basic nutrition, and literacy. On a number of ADB indices, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh fare considerably worse than Myanmar. And according to last year’s CIA World Factbook, well over fifty countries in the world have higher proportions of their populations living in poverty than does Myanmar, including Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, and Venezuela (and Argentina is close). This is not to excuse the country’s poor economic performance under military rule—for a country with the resources it possesses, Myanmar’s record has been abysmal—but to place its performance into broader context. It is an interesting thought problem, for example, to consider how many lives were lost and people immiserated in India because of the economic gains forgone by the government’s intermittent flirtations with Gandhian economics during the postwar decades.

If the Myanmar government’s long-run economic record has clearly been lousy, it is just as clear that the country’s economy has changed and, in some important ways, improved in recent years. Much but not all of the improvement results from the country’s increasingly important gas and oil sector, its abundant timber resources, and its access to Chinese investment capital. But other factors are at work as well, first among them the recent sell-off of state resources to the private (or at least quasi-private) sector, which can’t help but to enhance productivity. 

I’ve been to Myanmar more than a dozen times since 1993 and can testify that it is a far different place today than it was in the early 1990s. The changes are most dramatic in the cities, but rural areas—poor and underdeveloped as they are—are changing as well. In 1993 there was scarcely a private car in Yangon; today the city increasingly sees the types of traffic jams common in other large Asian cities. Satellite dishes are everywhere and air conditioning is increasingly common (although power blackouts remain frequent). Whereas in the early 1990s telephones were uncommon and the streets of the city still had sidewalk typists offering their services for a few kyat per page, today cell phones are everywhere, hotels are wired, and Internet cafes and game rooms are easy to find. I recently received an e-mail from a bookstore chain in Yangon announcing that it was holding a contest in which it would be raffling off a Kindle, among other prizes.


There are other signs of change as well. More NGOs are active, ranging from Save the Children to the Red Cross, and from Doctors Without Borders to Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are now modern supermarkets in Yangon, along with office parks, appliance centers, computer stores, and a range of both luxury and mid-priced hotels. And outside the city, spanking new subdivisions have sprouted up in areas such as Hlaing Thayar Township, areas with middle-class neighborhoods that would not look out of place in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. In other words, Yangon looks less and less like a parallel universe and more and more “normal.” And with fewer young men wearing longyis, with more and more young people dressed in T-shirts, denims, and Nike knockoffs, and streaking or dying their hair, the city’s younger residents look more and more like their urban counterparts elsewhere in Asia.

Moreover, such changes are visible to a lesser extent in other cities, most notably in Mandalay, five hundred and seventy-seven kilometers farther north, some parts of which now resemble nothing so much as southern California in appearance and housing stock. Much of the change in Mandalay is attributable to the growing Chinese presence in the city, but Burmese are benefitting from new economic opportunities there as well.

Critics often downplay the changes under way in the cities, characterizing them as cosmetic and superficial, benefitting only the “new rich,” i.e., people linked in one way or another to the government. This seems both unfair and untrue. Although many urban residents remain poor, often desperately so, it is not only the “rich” who have seen their material lives improve, for a small but increasingly vibrant and visible middle class is beginning to emerge, many members of which do not work for and sometimes even oppose the regime.

The changes have been less impressive in the countryside (where most of the population still resides), but here too things are improving. Better highways are being built, and they are beginning to make transport easier in a country whose rough terrain made overland travel exceedingly difficult in the past. Infrastructure all over the country is being built or upgraded: airports, bridges, dams, irrigation works, and port facilities, including container facilities in Yangon and other coastal ports. Regarding the last: In Yangon in the early nineties, vessels were often still unloaded by hand—by half-naked laborers, chest-deep in the Yangon River, handing off crates in human chains until the goods being unloaded reached one or another jetty or some other convenient spot on solid ground. There is still a long way to go regarding loading and unloading vessels, particularly in the rice sector, but the situation is much better than it was even a short time ago. 

Nor is that all. Television transmission stations are increasingly common in the countryside. The agricultural sector itself is beginning to modernize, with farm mechanization—albeit mainly of a fairly rudimentary nature—advancing, post-harvest facilities relating to milling and warehousing improving, and electricity, generators, gasifiers, and even solar power becoming more widespread in rural areas. Agricultural credit facilities are still inadequate, but the problem is increasingly acknowledged, and the dissemination of better information about modern farming practices is becoming more of a priority to the state. Clearly, change is afoot in the country. This is all without mentioning Naypyidaw, the brand-new capital three hundred and twenty kilometers to the north of Yangon.

None of the above is intended to give the generals, the government, or the Tatmadaw (the armed forces) a free pass. But a new constitution is in place and an election has been held. The constitution is unfair in many ways and the election was deeply flawed, but a political process has begun. Some members of opposition parties were elected to office. Aung San Su Kyi was released from house arrest a week after the election, and she is now talking regularly with leaders at the highest level of government. Thousands of prisoners (including two hundred–plus political prisoners) were released from Myanmar’s notorious penal system in October 2011. The media are significantly freer from control. Whether the military will continue to evolve in a positive way and whether opposition movements will grow are open questions. But no one expected military regimes in South Korea or Indonesia to “liberalize” as rapidly as they did, and it’s not out of the question that the leaders of the Tatmadaw will follow suit. It is out of the question, however, for the US and the EU to have much influence in Myanmar—or to counterbalance China’s and, increasingly, India’s sway—unless the West engages and incentivizes an often inscrutable regime that at long last, and for whatever reason, seems amenable to positive change.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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