[Editor’s Note: CSIS Asia Scholars Ernie Bower, Mike Green, Chris Johnson, and Murray Hiebert traveled to Myanmar in late August 2012 as part of a CSIS delegation to explore the political, economic, and social reforms launched by the new civilian government and develop policy recommendations for the U.S. government. The following is a primer on their findings available in a recently published trip report.]
Myanmar is in the early stages of moving toward transformational change in nearly all respects, including political and economic reform, the opening of space for civil society, empowerment of women, defining foreign policy and national security priorities, and finding a path to reconciliation with its diverse ethnic groups. However, there was evidence that significant challenges remain with respect to governance and reconciliation with ethnic minorities and that rights abuses continue in some areas, despite the overall positive direction from the leadership of the new government. Real change appears to be under way, but it is not irreversible.
Myanmar’s government, opposition leaders, civil society groups, and business leaders all emphasized that there is an urgency and immediacy around the process of change in their country. The United States should be aware that there are important, perhaps even historic, opportunities to promote and support reform. It needs also to be aware of substantial threats to reform and transparency. Developing a policy to navigate through these opportunities and challenges will require thoughtful consideration and intense focus. Actions the United States takes in Myanmar are intrinsically linked to the U.S. relationship with ASEAN and its broader Asia Pacific regional strategy.
The group held in-depth discussions with a broad cross section of officials and representatives from the private sector, including President U Thein Sein and several of his cabinet members and advisers, opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her advisers, members of Parliament, leaders of ethnic groups, members of civil society organizations, think tank representatives, business leaders, and foreign diplomats including newly appointed U.S. ambassador Derek Mitchell. For a more complete list, see the trip summary.
The visit was part of a larger CSIS project on Myanmar and U.S. policy in the wake of the government’s recent reforms and initial U.S. steps to support reforms and normalize relations with the country. The trip also served to gather insight and information ahead of a second component of the project, The Myanmar Conference @ CSIS, to be held at CSIS in Washington, D.C., on September 25 and a new CSIS policy tool called Myanmar in 4D. The conference will include speakers from Myanmar’s government, the opposition, and civil society as well as U.S. government officials and experts. It will explore U.S. policy options now that the first steps toward developing closer ties have been taken.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.