The lobby of the Traders Hotel in Yangon is buzzing in the early evening hours. The number of Chinese, Japanese, Europeans and Americans roaming the lobby is surprising. It’s as if they are all here just waiting for the economic boom to happen.
In response to the political and economic reforms undertaken by the government of Myanmar, major U.S. sanctions have been suspended, albeit not removed. The opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made a triumphant tour of the United States. President Thein Sein, the military ruler credited with ushering in the new reforms, was also appropriately welcomed.
Having lived under house arrest off and on since 1989, the comparisons of Aung San Suu Kyi to Nelson Mandela are fitting. But Mandela needed his F.W. de Klerk, the South African political leader willing to push reform, however grudgingly, from within. People of courage and conscience are fighting injustice all over the world, but it is a rare moment in history when their desires overlap with the ruling regime.
After meeting with an array of leaders in Myanmar, we believe that Thein Sein is committed to transitioning to democracy. But the jury is still out on whether the reform effort will succeed. This is not a revolution like we’ve seen in Middle East countries during the last two years. This is a calculated and contained process — a reform movement from within. On the one hand, it has to be slow and deliberate to allow for governing capacity to be built, as well as to prevent those who prefer the status quo from blocking change, and to keep oligarchs from seizing control and plundering Myanmar’s abundant natural resources. On the other hand, it does need to move quickly so that the population will feel the benefits of reform. Success will rely heavily on full engagement and investment from abroad.
If the population does not feel the benefits of democracy and reform, chances are the process will fail.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself candidly admits that progress is not inevitable and that many challenges still remain.
First, the vast majority of people are very poor. Lifting their livelihood is in the interests of everyone involved — the government, now that it will be directly elected, opposition parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and the business community, which is excited by this potential market. Yet creating jobs and growing the economy will require tremendous efforts by all elements of Burmese society and by the international community.
As Aung San Suu Kyi said, people-friendly investments like small-scale farming and labor-intensive businesses are of highest priority. Myanmar needs basic investments in water wells and electricity. Moreover, peaceful resolutions to the conflicts in the border areas are essential — unless the country’s minorities feel they are included, the reform movement will be undercut.
Second, the government lacks basic capacity and knowledge on how to govern properly. Following decades of dictatorship, members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches have limited ability to provide adequate services to their constituents. The good news is that they are eager to learn the standards and procedures of good governance. These include very basic skills such as drafting laws and budgets, constituent outreach, and how to work across party lines and deal with the business community. Basic elements of a functioning government are lacking. Members of Parliament, for instance, do not even have a staff.
American organizations specializing in democracy-building, until now focused mainly on feasibility studies, should be in full operation mode. Urgency in training is needed for both the legislative, executive and judicial branches, as well as the organization of political parties.
Third, the United States does not assign strategic importance to Myanmar. The result is a lack of urgency in using the tools available to make the reform process successful. Though sanctions have been formally suspended, in practice many remain in effect. Myanmar can really use an Enterprise Fund similar to the one being started by the State Department in Egypt and Tunisia. This can assist the Burmese in adopting U.S. business standards, as well as encourage American private-sector investments.
In America’s absence, the Chinese will outflank U.S. interests. This could result in the loss of both economic opportunities and influence on progress toward liberalization and democracy.
This is a unique moment in Myanmar. Long-time rivals, while differing in their political views, share the intention of giving the process of liberalization and democracy the best possible chance. Those who have been imprisoned are willing to trust and collaborate with those who put them in captivity for the sake of peace, stability and progress. We should listen to them and fully embrace their efforts with a great sense of urgency.
There is much to be said about America’s ability to demonstrate to other countries currently under U.S. sanctions, such as North Korea, what the benefits of reform and collaboration can look like. We can make Myanmar the positive case.
Bill Richardson is former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of energy and governor of New Mexico. Mickey Bergman is senior adviser to the Richardson Center for Global Engagement and executive director of the Aspen Institute Global Alliances Program.