When President Obama sees his counterparts among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this week in Bali, he is expected to advance a number of major initiatives. Washington has made clear the Asia-Pacific region’s importance to the 21st century and its dedication to an enduring U.S. presence there.
For its part, Myanmar has weathered numerous revolutions without regime change, including the “first wave,” after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Saffron revolution in 2007; and multi-party elections in November 2010. The political situation in Myanmar cannot be compared with the uprisings in the Middle East because Myanmar itself overcame uprisings like those changing the Arab world.
Myanmar’s path is intricately tied to the needs of our country. Washington and the West need to understand that our president is a strong political reformer and that our proposal for Myanmar to assume the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 would accelerate the process. This is my president’s political road map for the international community. The United States must recognize that Myanmar’s politics will transform in steps. Every change must be based on reality, stability and systematic process. Myanmar must focus on overhauling the old system while building the society the international community has long hoped for. This is the political drama in Southeast Asia.
President Thein Sein is the hope of our entire nation, including ethnic minorities, people in the grass roots and the middle class. Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview with local journalists that she believes President Thein Sein “is very genuine in his desire for the process of democratization.” But he needs strong support from the international community to usher in a new era. Washington and others must change their dual-track policy toward Myanmar if they want it to become a democratic country as measured by their values and norms.
In the short term, Myanmar needs aid and trade, direct foreign investment and business opportunities. Financial sanctions must be lifted and upgrades made to public education and the health-care sector. Efforts must be made to develop the overall economy. If Myanmar does not overcome these battles, it cannot evolve in ways that would be a win for our people and the outside world.
What the West must realize is that in today’s geopolitical situation, particularly given the rise of China, it needs Myanmar. Washington and others must help facilitate Myanmar’s connection to the outside world at this critical juncture. My president’s cancellation of the Beijing-backed Myitsone Dam signaled to the world what he stands for. If the United States neglects this opportunity, Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indochina region.
When President Thein Sein came to power in March, he declared an unprecedented reform agenda, including clean government, good governance, poverty reduction, national reconciliation, development and industrialization. His commitment to drive the reform process has impressed people in and outside our country. When Sen. John McCain visited Myanmar in June,our government made it clear that it intends to walk away from its pursuit of nuclear power, even though Myanmar has many research and development needs to which nuclear technology could be applied. The new government decided after the incident at Japan’s Fukushima site this spring not to pursue the nuclear path.
President Thein Sein has made extraordinary progress over the past eight months. Facing many challenges, he is trying to implement democratic processes. The U.S. government must understand his political situation — for every one step forward, there is a more difficult step back. The West should encourage him, not simply apply pressure without any give in its own positions. Don’t push him into a corner.
Many observers believe Myanmar is approaching a new beginning. People are starting to feel they can express openly what they want, that they can ask questions of the government and make demands on lawmakers. These are tangible results of the 2010 elections.
U.S. attempts to further isolate Myanmar at this juncture would be a disaster. As this country opens its doors to the outside world, Washington must cross the threshold. Obama and Congress must strongly support President Thein Sein and democratization in Myanmar. The White House must officially build the diplomatic bridge to our country at the Bali summit by supporting Myanmar’s bid to assume the ASEAN chair in 2014. A message from Obama that this move would assist the advancement of peace, stability and development in Myanmar would reinforce hopes across our country.
Some have expressed doubts about Myanmar’s state capacity, the population’s confidence in the leadership and the political implications of Myanmar holding the chairmanship. Would this be a step toward international sanctions being lifted?
First, taking on this role would give Myanmar the status with which the nation should be viewed on the international stage. The key point is pride for Myanmar’s people, not for the president and his administration.
Second, Myanmar has been closed to the outside world for decades. Many in the region and elsewhere pressure Myanmar or treat it with doubts and questions. Our country was historically a regional powerhouse and should regain its rightful position.
Political development in Myanmar is home-grown. Our country has taken steps other nations in the region have not yet accomplished. We implemented a new constitution late last year and its effects are taking hold.
China ascended to the world stage with the Beijing Olympics. The ASEAN chair is Myanmar’s opportunity to step forward. This issue must be raised, and not postponed, at this week’s summit.
President Thein Sein looks forward to trying to lead ASEAN much as he has guided Myanmar — maintaining his commitment to improve political, social and economic development, without outside pressure or influence. This country has shown it can stand on its own. It is time the international community and the people of Myanmar turned to a new chapter.
By Zaw Htay, director of the office of the president of Myanmar.