THE BLOG
11/18/2014 12:52 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Myanmar: Too Soon to Declare End of Reforms

Myanmar dominated the news cycle this past week as it hosted some of the world's most powerful leaders for the East Asia Summit. The bulk of the coverage had a negative bent, declaring the end of the reform era and lamenting a "backslide" to the repressive days of Myanmar's military junta. The focus was also on President Obama and his second trip to the region--nearly 10 times longer than the 2012 trip--and the message the Administration would convey to the Myanmar government and civil society.

Prior to Obama's trip, White House officials said the President had concerns about the recent pace and scope of reforms in Myanmar, but acknowledged that the country has come a long way in a short time. At the East Asia Summit, Obama offered the typical mixed--and sometimes seemingly contradictory--message praising the steps the Myanmar government has taken while recognizing the depth of the challenges that lie ahead. During a meeting with the Myanmar President, Obama explained that with Thein Sein's leadership, "the democratization process in Myanmar is real." He went on to say, "[w]e recognize change is hard and you do not always move in a straight line, but I'm optimistic." On November 13, the Administration announced its one "deliverable," the return of the Peace Corps to Myanmar.

In his meetings, Obama also took the opportunity to highlight his key areas of concern, including ensuring an inclusive and credible 2015 election, constitutional reform supporting a shift from military to civilian rule, and addressing the violence in Rakhine state targeting the Rohingya population. U.S. officials told the media that the purpose of the trip, aside from ASEAN and East Asia Summit obligations, was to send a message of displeasure, particularly regarding the perceived stalling of reform efforts. In a press conference with prodemocracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, Obama said the U.S. would be unable to have full ties with Myanmar unless reforms continue apace. He identified the 2015 elections as a critical test.

President Obama used the term "backsliding" for the first time in reference to Myanmar's reform process, prompting questions about what measures the U.S. would take to address this. Just two weeks before the President's trip, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Myanmar parliament member Aung Thaung, demonstrating that, as promised, the U.S. would sanction the individuals and entities that are trying to undermine or counter reforms.

Despite Obama's messaging and the U.S. designation, Myanmar media outlets and human rights groups said that the visit fell flat. Local activists suggest that the U.S. is taking a "soft stance" on Myanmar's government, that the country has transformed into a "constitutional totalitarian state," and that "reform is fake." Prior to President Obama's visit, Aung San Suu Kyi told a press conference that "there have been times when the U.S. government has been too optimistic about the reform process started by the present government, but if they really studied the situation in this country they will know that this reform process started stalling early last year." She demurred during a joint press conference, explaining the relationship between the U.S. and the prodemocracy movement remained strong. Ethnic groups also felt forgotten, citing a stalled national reconciliation process.

I would argue that reform has not stalled--the country has come a long way down the democratic path, and it will go further if we continue to engage. Consider what the Myanmar has done since 2011: hundreds of political prisoners were released, progressive labor and media laws were enacted, a national reconciliation process was formalized, a relatively free and fair by-election was held in 2012 that brought Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party into government, and public demonstrations have been allowed. Additionally, the government has opened the economy to bring in foreign banks and develop its financial system, rationalized its currency and exchange rates, and passed a new foreign direct investment law. Standards of living are rising, and the country is becoming more and more integrated into the global community. The number of ATMs has risen from zero in 2010, to 450 this year (and they work most of the time). Cell phone usage has skyrocketed--Myanmar has gone from being one of the world's least connected countries (even worse than North Korea), to having 3G networks in the country's largest cities and affordable SIM cards and cell phones. A cash-based society without credit cards is slowly transforming and there are now more than 2,500 payment terminals in the country. And with new investors from dozens of countries entering the market, including Coca Cola, General Electric, Gap, Telenor, Ooredoo, ANZ, and other multinational firms, Myanmar's working age population have steadily increasing employment opportunities with decent wages.

Despite all these positive indicators, critics dwell on the fact that the initial frenzied pace of legislation passage has slowed. It would be wrong to define reform as simply enacting a series of progressive laws, however. What matters more to Myanmar is getting it right--effectuating the progressive measures and democratic reforms, not just racking up astronomical legislative numbers as window dressing. A key indicator that Myanmar is on the right path is the successful ongoing implementation and enforcement of such legislation--Myanmar must continue to build on this foundation and ensure the new laws are recognized by every level and office of government. For the most part, Myanmar has done so and should be praised for it.

Is there cause for concern? Yes, of course, because the issues Myanmar must tackle in the coming years are incredibly difficult, just as President Obama highlighted at the East Asia Summit. The recent death of a Myanmar journalist at the hands of the military, curbs on media freedoms, ongoing violence in Rakhine State, and arrests of activists all smack of the dark past. The remaining issues of land reform, national reconciliation, racism, sectarian violence, and constitutional reform all are inherently difficult and complex, and have perplexed and frustrated governments of all political stripes. The government should be held accountable, but the conversation has to be constructive. These efforts should not--and cannot--be undertaken alone.

Additionally, we should recognize that Myanmar is now a different country. There is a different government, and it is one that we can work with. Our approach must be different, too. Calls for punitive measures such as additional visa bans or reimposition of financial sanctions will not achieve the desired result, or even produce positive optics. Those that are perpetrating violence in Myanmar are not part of the global financial system, nor or they likely to travel to the U.S. While such measures can and will be used to thwart individuals or entities that attempt to undermine reform, we need to broaden our approach and use more creative tools. We should take full advantage of the lines of communication between Myanmar and foreign governments and investors now have--these channel were unavailable for more than 50 years; we cannot discard them.

It's not just the Myanmar government and its foreign counterparts that can play an active and constructive role in reforming the country--foreign investors, local community activists, ethnic and opposition political leaders, and human rights advocates are critical to the process as well. We must begin to shed the decades of mistrust and stop seeing ghosts of the junta past in every questionable action. During the trip, Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes reinforced this idea, as well as the importance of U.S. involvement and investment in Myanmar: "[o]ur fundamental view is it's better for us to be engaged, it's better for us to be here on the ground."