Myanmar: transition, competition and trust


The Obama administration plans to announce Tuesday that the U.S. is easing sanctions on Myanmar to make it easier for American companies to do business there, The Wall Street Journal reports (HT:FPI).

But the fact that the US will maintain some sanctions despite the country’s landmark change of government is likely to fuel debate over whether such punitive measures can backfire, The Financial Times adds.

Myanmar’s critical transition from “quasi-military” rule to more democratic governance is as yet unfinished, notes a leading analyst. Competition for power remains intense, despite the sweeping election victory last November by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and the installation of an NLD-led government on April 1, notes David I. Steinberg, distinguished professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University, and visiting scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

The scale of that victory has allowed Suu Kyi to pick a president who, she has clearly stated, is under her command, one of the two vice presidents, and the speakers of both houses of parliament. Yet the military, or Tatmadaw, retains significant authority beyond its control of coercive power and the constitutional veto, he writes for the Nikkei Asian Review:

The Tatmadaw has formally agreed to some kind of undefined federal structure. But the various ethnic groups have their own opinions, often in conflict not only with the center but with other parties on the periphery. How to absorb the various armed groups into a unified military is just one example of the issues that the former administration of President Thein Sein tried to address; it went further than any previous government, yet did not reach its goal.

Various groups and individuals may not want to reach either a cease-fire or a federal structure, either of which might eliminate lucrative rent-seeking operations along the frontiers. The NLD’s ethnic relations ministry will take some sort of active role in seeking cease-fires to be followed by a more permanent peace, but this process is one that the Tatmadaw will regard with vigilance, since it may differ from the approach of the border ministry that the military controls. The Tatmadaw’s primary goal for more than five decades has been national unity with fissiparous ethnic groups.

“No party has yet proceeded toward the compromises essential to a successful transition,” Steinberg notes. “If confrontation becomes the operational mode, the transition will fail and authoritarian elements might call for a resurgence of military domination. That would be tragic for the people, for the country, and for the international transitional model.”

Some 18 Young Leaders from Burma (Myanmar) who are contributing to their country’s transition to democracy will graduate from the 2016 class of the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Forum on May 25. President and Mrs. George W. Bush will speak at the graduation, which will also include Phyoe Aung and Lin Htet Naing (left), two Young Leaders of the inaugural class who were unable to attend their graduation in 2015 while imprisoned for peacefully advocating for education reform.

The Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Forum equips young leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to lead in countries where transitions to democracy are occurring. It uses a curriculum focused on the principles of liberal democracy and economic freedom, lessons from other democratic transitions, and practical leadership skills.

Liberty and Leadership Forum Graduation
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
5:30 p.m.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center
2943 SMU Boulevard
Dallas, TX 75204 

Housed within the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the George W. Bush Institute is an action-oriented, nonpartisan policy organization with the mission of cultivating leaders and advancing policies to solve today’s most pressing challenges. The Bush Institute’s Human Freedom initiative seeks to advance the development of free societies rooted in individual liberty, civil society, and democratic institutions and practices.

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