As Myanmar moves ahead with its ambitious reforms and abandons old ways of thinking, Western countries need to change their own mind-set and adopt a more subtle approach.
After decades of sanctions and self-imposed isolation, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is undergoing a remarkable and, so far, peaceful transition away from authoritarian rule. It is heading in the direction that its people and the international community both want.
The dramatic changes led by President Thein Sein have been endorsed by the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said that the president is sincerely motivated.
Key political freedoms such as the right to organize, assemble, speak out and run for political office are being exercised in a way that was unthinkable even a year ago.
The government has abandoned policies of confrontation with the country’s ethnic minorities for a new peace initiative that has seen 11 cease-fire agreements signed with armed groups, leaving out only the resistant Kachin. These deals are an encouraging first step in what needs to be a larger effort to rethink the way the country sees itself after 60 years of civil war.
Aung San Suu Kyi is campaigning for a seat in Parliament in by-elections on April 1. The National League for Democracy is registered, not banned; her once forbidden image is ubiquitous on the streets of the capital.
Thousands turn out to see her campaigning and the media are free to report on her activities. The elections for 48 of the 656 seats in the legislature will not be perfect, but they are expected to be much more free and fair than the controversial November 2010 poll.
There is still much to be changed. Decades without a legislature have left Myanmar over-reliant on British colonial laws. “You name it, we need to reform it,” a government adviser told me in Yangon last week. Backward agriculture, antiquated infrastructure, an ossified civil service, and mind-sets cultivated by decades of isolation will not be changed easily or overnight.
The good news is that most senior officials understand this and are open to outside help. From the president down, they realize isolation has left the country weakened.
Capital, know-how and new ideas at all levels may be rushed in, not all well designed or well intentioned. The challenge for the West, which has contributed to the country’s seclusion, is to recalibrate its response to the reform initiatives.
Whether or not the existing sanctions contributed to change, they will not support the momentum for reform; removing them will. Major changes have been set in motion in response to increasing demands from the people of Myanmar, as well as in preparation for the country to act as host to the Southeast Asian Games in 2013 and to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. In a new democratic mind-set, the government also has its eye on its own re-election in 2015.
Neither threats nor promises are necessary to set the agenda.
Skepticism and undue prudence will only slow down the reform process and risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Rather, it is time for encouragement and support to achieve the mutual goal of opening up Myanmar and improving the plight of its mostly impoverished people. This will require subtlety in policy making by Western governments, and a political effort commensurate to the one being made by the Burmese authorities themselves.
First, finding new reasons to keep restrictions in place is the wrong approach. Using sanctions to force a solution to the outstanding ethnic conflict involving the Kachin armed group is a clumsy tactic that puts pressure only on the government and encourages the other side to fight on for a better deal.
Secondly, blanket prohibitions on trade, financial transactions, or development aid should no longer be used to address single-issue bilateral agendas such as people smuggling.
Finally, exclusively taking the lead from the National League for Democracy’s Aung San Suu Kyi on when to end sanctions and restrictions will no longer be appropriate once she takes up a new role as the leader of a minority party in Parliament.
The international community is now pushing on an open door in Myanmar; the real difficulty is in crossing the threshold effectively to achieve an agreed-upon objective. Neither sanctions nor a stampede of offers of assistance will help.
It is time for a more nuanced approach of engagement that understands and respects the domestic agenda and sets aside years of built-in suspicions and stereotypes. Support is needed to accelerate political and economic reforms and, most importantly for the sake of all the country’s long-suffering citizens, to meet understandable but not always realistic expectations.
By Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group.