Myanmar moves forward

May 06, 2014

When Myanmar held national elections in November 2010 after decades of military rule, most observers expected little to change. The political and economic reforms of the last several years, though, have propelled Myanmar into a new chapter of its history. At a Global Conference session titled “The Transformation of Myanmar,” moderated byDavid Carden, the former U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), panelists and a spirited audience discussed the rapid developments and ongoing problems that make Myanmar a fascinating case study in international development.

First of all, political expression has expanded significantly since 2010. Numerous pro-democracy political prisoners (though, importantly, not all) have been released, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was held under house arrest for 20 years. Suu Kyi now holds a seat in parliament.

Similarly, Ko Ko Gyi spent 17 years in prison and now is a politician who leads the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society organization. At the Milken Institute Global Conference, he argued that the changes of recent years reflect the military’s realization that to have international credibility, they need domestic legitimacy. Elections and reforms have been an attempt to get up to speed with what Ko Gyi called the “world trend” toward democracy and market economies.

Myanmar’s reform efforts have also attempted to bring peaceful solutions to longstanding conflicts along the country’s periphery. According to Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center, 14 of the 16 ethnic insurgent groups who fought the government have signed ceasefire pacts. Zaw Oo himself was an insurgent who once battled to overturn the state. He then lived in exile for two decades before returning recently to his country of birth. His homecoming and new role reflect the changes happening in Myanmar today.

Winston Set Aung, vice governor of the Central Bank of Myanmar, observed that the policy changes have been multidimensional. Along with political reforms, Myanmar is attempting to transform the economy. According to Set Aung, “invisible reforms” such as fixing drastic problems in the foreign exchange market and solidifying the banking sector are the foundation for many visible changes in the economy.

Both Set Aung and Serge Pun, chairman of Serge Pun & Associates, discussed the new influx of foreign direct investment. China, Singapore, and ASEAN member nations have noticeably increased investments in recent years, but according to Pun, “U.S. business interest in Myanmar has been lagging behind.” When an investor in the audience asked where the needs and opportunities are, Set Aung answered, “Manufacturing.” He explained that the extractive sectors have received considerable attention but hopes more investment will target job-creating manufacturing projects.

Myanmar has roughly 60 million people, and they’ve witnessed dramatic changes in the last few years. The panel also explored whether the pace should slow down and become more deliberate. On the other hand, don’t the people deserve the full measure of their rights as soon as possible? To this question, Ko Gyi replied: “Democracy is a process, but we’ve waited long enough.”

As he and other panelists suggested, the newfound peace, political representation, and economic growth seem tightly linked, and delays or failures in one area are bound to hold back the others. For now, though, the country seems to be moving forward on all fronts. As Carden said, Myanmar “affords an opportunity very few places in the world afford” – the chance to witness and participate in the rapid gains in prosperity and quality of life of an entire nation.