Recent back-to-back visits to the United States by the top two leaders of Myanmar (better known as Burma) -- opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and current President Thein Sein -- have brought the Southeast Asian nation back into the international spotlight. They have also underscored the need for U.S. engagement as a bulwark against the economic uncertainty, ethnic tensions and civil unrest that continue to plague Burma's exceedingly fragile evolution.
Washington has been an energetic proponent of Burma’s political transformation for some time now. Most visibly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a landmark visit to the country in 2011, during which she committed the U.S. to an “action-for-action” strategy; as Burma continued to enact political reforms, the U.S. would reciprocate with economic aid and the easing of sanctions. But in the months since Clinton’s visit, it has become clear that Burma's democratic transition, while proceeding cautiously, still rests on shaky ground.
This summer, riots erupted in Rakhine state, fuelled by tensions between Burmese Buddhists and minority ethnic Rohingya Muslims. The Rohingyas’ plight sparked outcry from the international community, with some accusing Burmese authorities of carrying out violent and systematic discrimination -- with devastating results. Conservative estimates put the death toll from the conflict in the hundreds, while the United Nations projects that some 90,000 people were displaced.
The outbreak of violence prompted heightened international scrutiny of the new Burmese government, revealing in the process that its two most prominent achievements to date -- the abolition of press censorship and the release of political prisoners -- remain very much works in progress.
Still, some halting forward momentum is visible. The Burmese government deserves credit for freeing some 500 prisoners in recent weeks in a move that neatly coincided with its president’s trip to the U.S. Yet only 88 of these were political prisoners, and even those were granted “provisional freedom,” according to a report by Human Rights Watch. (More depressingly, the report goes on to highlight how “freed dissidents” are still barred access to movement, education and psychological treatment for their prison-induced trauma.)
Similarly, in August, the Thien government abolished the law requiring reporters to submit their work to state censors before publication. The elimination of this 50-year-old “tradition” was hailed by outside observers as a substantive sign of progress. However, the BBC reports that a series of laws untouched by the reforms could still be used to prosecute journalists for their writing, and editors are still under pressure to keep content “legal.” Nevertheless, publications covering less sensitive issues are now allowed to print without prior review, and thousands of Internet web sites are accessible to users, permitting political content for the first time -- changes that would have been unthinkable under military rule.
These developments are modest, to be sure, but they demonstrate that some genuine progress indeed has been made in recent times in peeling back the layers of historic autocratic governance. At the same time, they underscore that Burma's transition to democracy remains both tenuous and reversible.
As the U.S. begins to ease Burma’s diplomatic isolation, it must stay focused on two complementary goals. The first has to do with bolstering the country’s struggling economy. The second deals with defending the human rights of minorities and political opponents.
These issue are organically linked. In her recent trip to Washington DC, Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a long-time political dissident, made that point when she said she favored a speedy move toward normalization of commercial relations. The Obama administration responded the same week, lifting an import ban on Burmese products, and is now working with Congress to pass a waiver that will dilute or remove the bulk of remaining sanctions.
It's a good start. Burma is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with 26 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to UN statistics. Lifting investment sanctions and import bans will create desperately needed jobs in Burma and diversify the economy away from its current, unhealthy dependence on energy exports. Nothing can ease the rocky transition from autocracy to democracy more effectively than economic growth, and nothing can undermine a newly elected government like a faltering economy.
International actors are increasingly taking notice as well. The European Union recently eased its own sanctions on Burma in response to improving working conditions there; India, meanwhile, is eyeing the country’s natural gas reserves, hoping to make up economic ground lost to China during Burma's years of isolation. This kind of economic competition is healthy, insofar as its logical outcome is a more prosperous and liberalizing Burma. But it also carries the risk of political backsliding, especially if Burmese authorities are tempted to revert back to authoritarianism as economic stability strengthens.
Washington's biggest contribution to Burma's progress, then, isn't simply to remain engaged on the economic and political fronts. It is also to make sure that progress on the former doesn't come at the expense of the latter.
Amanda Sawit is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.