Early in July, the Obama administration lifted longstanding sanctions on U.S. investment in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Such a change in the economic constraints on what was and could still reasonably be considered one of the poorest and least democratic countries in Asia would appear to be a primarily positive development. While it certainly is an important stepping stone in both improving the quality of life of Burma’s suffering people and integrating Burma into the international community as one of its more open and productive members, the hasty pace at which the U.S. is moving in on the Burmese economy runs the risk of undermining the worthier goals of ingraining a progressive, permanent democracy in Burma.
This macroscopic aim of the U.S. and of democratic stalwarts in Burma has been divided into three subgoals by Burmese freedom leader Aung San Suu Kyi: 1) establishing a rule of law, 2) restructuring the constitution and 3) resolving tensions and atoning for all offenses being done to ethnic minorities within Burma. The only balanced solution is to proceed with caution and to target economic progress in Burma so long as it is on a parallel track with progress in meeting these ends.
However, the Obama administration’s easing of limitations on U.S. investment in Burma in July is tipping the progress scale too far towards economic gains and allowing the objectives of political reform to drift away. This summer, the largest commercial and economic delegation in 25 years was sent to Burma along with a business delegation that included over 70 executives from more than 35 companies, all of which will invariably establish business in Burma. Such a drastic shift towards foreign investment in Myanmar should be condemned as it will surely contribute to the wealth of the already absurdly wealthy military cronies in Burma and could leave nothing to benefit the impoverished majority of its people.
Proof of this is that the most significant moves towards democracy among the Burmese government occurred only while international pressure was being placed on it – when economic sanctions were at their strongest and most immovable. It has taken the nation at least twenty years for Suu Kyi to be recognized by the government as the true voice of its people. Only after did the government give due respect and attention to a woman who should have long ago been recognized as a valuable advisor for the governing body rather than a nuisance to be suppressed. Only in 2012 did Suu Kyi win and retain a seat in the Parliament by-election. It was just this year that the National League for Democracy (NLD) won and retained its 43 out of 45 seats contested in the by-election.
Some judge this a paramount triumph, especially considering the authoritarian junta’s blatant nullification of similar results in Burma’s 1990 election, where the NLD winners were arrested and election results falsified to maintain junta authority. Those same people would argue that this great achievement is a cue that Burma is ready to gain full access to foreign investment.
However, Burma remains a long way from democracy. Although President Obama has admitted that there remains a “lack of transparency in Burma’s investment environment” and the military still has a role in the economy, his administration continuously moves toward nearly unrestricted investment in Burma without actually imposing stricter regulations on it. If the U.S. continues to lift sanctions without demanding transparency and accountability, the Burmese government will not have any incentive to push for democratic reforms.
Burma is an infant that must be coaxed along, but not necessarily pulled by the hand.. For the sake of both Burma and the U.S., the U.S. must not over-concern itself with Burma’s democratic health. As Suu Kyi has argued, the “people must start taking responsibility of their own destiny” and should not “depend on the U.S. sanctions to keep up the momentum of [their] movement toward democracy.”
The optimal course of action is that the U.S. ease sanctions in a guarded way while nudging President Thein Sein and his executive to execute the democratic forms. This necessitates again the rule of law and a functional judicial system set up to enforce it. Such a path would be mutually beneficial for the Burmese nation and the U.S. The Burmese people’s rights and interests would be respected, there would be a decline in military abuse of ethnic minorities and there would be motivation for U.S. and other foreign investors to promote this system so that they may safely and freely operate in Burma. Furthermore, the U.S. would be less culpable for Burmese humanitarian crimes in-house, Burma’s nuclear connections to North Korea and its potential political stagnancy. The key in proceeding forward with U.S.-Myanmar relations is to value and nurture political evolution on par with economic evolution on both sides.
Sally Minn is a freshman International Studies major from New York, N.Y.