By Anthony Ware
U.S. president Barack Obama’s November 19 visit to Myanmar was the first ever by a U.S. president. There is much that could be said about this visit, including the growing geostrategic importance of the country and the United States’ efforts to enhance relationships with ASEAN and the Asia Pacific region. But from a Myanmar perspective, in light of almost two decades of U.S. sanctions against the country, it was a very powerful gesture recognizing the extent of political reform in the country and support for the Myanmar people.
This visit is nothing if not a symbol of Myanmar’s vastly improved international relations standing. Less than two years ago, Myanmar was widely seen as a ‘pariah’ state that did not belong to the community of civilized nations; now it hosted the first ever visit by a sitting U.S. President. During Obama’s visit, a TV reporter asked me whether I thought this recognition was given too soon. Should Myanmar be given this much recognition while it still holds an estimated 200 political prisoners and human rights abuses continue, at least in conflict zones? This question is significant.
My answer was that, despite the ongoing issues and problems, engagement is a far more productive approach to consolidating the political will required to sustain transition as well as meet the needs of the poor, given that the speed, sincerity, and breadth of the reform over the last 18 months has taken almost all observers by surprise. The apparent lack of any serious internal resistance, including from the military, is remarkable.
The current reform began in earnest March 2011, with the resignation of Senior General Than Shwe and dissolution of the ruling junta, resulting in the inauguration of President Thein Sein and the convening of a parliament based on the November 2010 election results. Despite parliament operating under a flawed constitution that guarantees a quarter of all seats to military appointees, the reforms are notable.
Within just four months, there were enough indications of sincere change that Australia dispatched its foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, on an official visit. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited in December 2011 after further reforms, including the easing of media censorship, the formation of a Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, serious attempts at peace negotiations with ethnic minorities, and the release of 6,359 prisoners (including 200 of the estimated 1,000 political prisoners then in detention). UK prime minister David Cameron visited in April 2012, after free and fair by-elections saw opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 colleagues elected to parliament. As the rapid thaw in international relations continued, the European Union suspended sanctions against Myanmar, Australia lifted them, and the United States eased them.
Obama’s visit is thus another major step in the growing international recognition of Myanmar’s reforms. There are serious issues remaining, including the need to sustain political will for the transition, serious abuses by local authorities, human rights abuses, the inability to resolve conflict in ethnic areas, inter-communal violence in Rakhine State, land grabbing by local economic and political elites, and environmental and social concerns over recent economic development projects. However, all high-profile political prisoners have been released, peaceful assembly is legalized, media censorship removed, and most foreigners and exiles who were blacklisted are allowed to return without fear of imprisonment.
So where to next?
The most recent poverty survey, the Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey in Myanmar (2009-2010), paints a stark picture of life for a very large number of the Myanmar people: more than a quarter of the population live in extreme poverty, almost a third have no safe drinking water, one in five have no improved sanitation or access to healthcare, over a third suffer moderate or severe malnutrition, and more than half have nothing more than a grade four education.
In response to the reforms, most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development donor countries increased aid budgets to Myanmar, but international assistance is well below the levels given to most other least-developed countries. The next step needs to be development cooperation, international partnerships, and alignment of aid promised from the international community, as called for by the Millennium Declaration (2000) and Paris Declaration (2005). The international community has repeatedly affirmed that these principles are requirements for effective poverty alleviation and development assistance.
Political reform is the first step, and must continue. But now, most urgent for the poor of Myanmar is for the international community to engage with the government in development cooperation around poverty alleviation, as we recognize its reform efforts, stand with it, and hold it to account.
Dr. Anthony Ware is a lecturer in international development at Deakin Unviersity, Australia, and the author of Context-Sensitive Development: How international NGOs operate in Myanmar, Kumarian Press, 2012.