US President Barack Obama visited the former dictatorship of Myanmar last month. He told the country's leadership what he needed to - follow through on state-led reforms, including better treatment of minority ethnic/religious groups. The UN and other state actors have echoed this sentiment and such rhetoric is needed. Myanmar is a three-year old democracy in transition that is seeking global legitimacy as it rebuilds its economy. At this point, the Burmese government is listening to what foreign actors are saying, adapting its policies accordingly.
First, foreign pressure is what contributed to Myanmar's decision to offer citizenship to the Rohingya Muslim minority. Yes, there are huge strings attached, which the UN, US and others have pointed out. But let's not forget, in 2012, Burmese President Thein Sein said Rohingyas should simply be sent away "if any third country would accept them." So this is a small step in the right direction.
Second, foreign pressure is what has contributed to a dialogue on changing the constitution - which effectively bars democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi from running in the 2015 election and guarantees 25% of parliament seats to the military. Yes, Myanmar's presidential spokesman has already said the proposed six-party summit to discuss changes is "impractical", but the point is it is part of public debate now.
How else should we be advising Myanmar now so its version of democracy isn't derailed in the future? Here are three pieces of advice that the US and other foreign actors should offer Myanmar's government to help create a stable, more inclusive society:
1) INCLUSIVE NATIONAL IDENTITY - Does being Burmese mean you must be Buddhist and Burman? That's certainly the message we are receiving from the outside, given all the violence against Muslim minority groups, discriminatory laws (e.g. on family planning) and the ongoing ethnic conflict. Unless the state publicly decides what this new Myanmar should mean for citizens, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, Burman and non-Burman, the country's national identity will be fractured indefinitely, ensuring chronic instability.
2) JOBS FOR ALL - It's no secret there has been a lot of money flowing in for new development since Myanmar opened up its economy in 2011. For 2014-2015, foreign direct investment is supposed to be more than $5 billion, in part due to new ventures in energy and telecom. Growth estimates are over 8%, according to the World Bank and IMF. But has growth and new investment created jobs for all? Doesn't look like it. In ethnic conflict-hit northern Burma, unemployment among the Kachin minority is as high as 50% (as is the drug problem). Myanmar must avoid the mistakes of other countries where minority groups feel excluded from the local economic boom, (think Sri Lanka post-2009 war where some in the Tamil-dominated north still feel excluded from new development projects and job opportunities).
3) EDUCATION FOR ALL - Does everyone have access to the same education? Again, doesn't look like it. Muslim minority groups like the Rohingya are openly discriminated against in terms of state-run schooling beyond primary school. Madrasas have filled the void but are typically for males only. Where are Muslim girls in Myanmar being educated? Only half of all Burmese girls complete a primary education. There are new initiatives like the Ericsson-UK government partnership for improving marginalized girls' education through greater connectivity in the next two years, but we need a state-led program for broader impact as well. Back in 2012, President Sein stated his controversial plan to open state-run schools specifically for Rohingya Muslim children so they could get a "modern education" and learn "what is right and what is wrong". There hasn't been any notable follow-up on where these schools would be built or who would teach in these schools. This is a mistake.
These are some of the steps we should advise the Burmese government to take if we want reforms to fully take root in a stable, more inclusive society in the coming years.
Myanmar - we are rooting for you.