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A Myanmar Perspective on the Rebalance

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 22/02/2016 Jack Myint
MYANMAR © Taylor Weidman via Getty Images MYANMAR

My rebuttal to Joshua Kurlantzick's "Pivotal Moment"
In light of the recent US-ASEAN summit in Sunnylands, California, I would like to take this opportunity to pen a rebuttal to Mr. Kurlantzick's take on Myanmar, outlined in "Pivotal Moment", which appeared in the Democracy Journal earlier this month. While the author has made a few valid points, I believe his stance on U.S-Myanmar foreign relations simply does not reflect the reality on the ground.
In this article, I argue why the United States should bet on Myanmar's economic potential, why the U.S focus on Mainland and Maritime Southeast Asia need not be viewed as a zero-sum game, that Myanmar's political progression has not stalled, and that increased U.S engagement will not alienate young Myanmar democrats. I also argue that focusing on foreign aid alone would undercut American competitiveness in Myanmar, and that the power-balance between the United States and China in the region is not America's only economic challenge.
Mr. Kurlantzick's article begins on the following premise:

"First, the White House has focused too much on the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, which have provided minimal strategic benefits in return. This focus on mainland Southeast Asia has distracted attention from the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia that are of greater value strategically and economically."

While it is true that the current engagement bears minimal benefits in the case of Myanmar, the article neglects to look at long-term potential benefits that could emerge from a strategic alliance. Myanmar only recently opened up to the global economy in 2011, and there is widespread consensus that the country has much potential. An untapped financial market, a wealth of natural resources, strategic geographic location, and labor potential emanating from large youth population, are all appealing factors to foreign investors.
To be fair to Mr. Kurlantzick's assessment, Myanmar's economy is one of ASEAN's smallest. However, with key developments in government policy, capacity building, and changes in corporate behavior stemming from a more competitive environment and access to foreign capital, it can and will surely rise to the ranks of its more developed neighbors. There is ample evidence to support this notion - for one, The Economist recently named Myanmar "country of the year" with the highest potential for growth.
Additionally, the claim that supposes American focus on Mainland and Maritime Southeast Asia as a zero-sum game is unfounded. A shift of U.S. engagement toward Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore should not come at the expense of its ties with mainland Southeast Asia. Taken together, the ASEAN region has the fifth highest GDP in the world, and the organization of Southeast Asian nations continues to strive to work in sync with one another, through annual summits and its developing ASEAN Economic Community. The U.S. relationship with the region - both mainland and maritime - should be viewed holistically.
Secondly, Mr. Kurlantzick claims,

"... increased U.S. ties with mainland Southeast Asia have facilitated political regression by empowering brutal militaries, condoning authoritarian regimes, and alienating young Southeast Asian democrats. Reform has stalled in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. This political regression will have strategic downsides for the United States: In the long run, young Southeast Asians--the region's future leaders--will become increasingly anti-American...."

Political progression has not stalled in Myanmar. The recent general elections ushered in an overwhelming win for the former opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and currently, both houses of the National Parliament and the State and Regional Parliaments are dominated by NLD MPs, a political outcome the United States has been advocating for more than 25 years. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military are in talks about power-sharing in the lead-up to when the new administration takes office in less than two months. The general public sentiment post-election has been nothing but optimistic.
Claims that reform has stalled due to ongoing skirmishes in ethnic areas, arrests of activists, and curbed freedoms of speech do not reflect how far the country has come. There should have been an expectation that the initial frenzied pace of reform in 2011 and 2012 would eventually slow, given the priority to establish long-term economic and political policies; many of these policies have been open to public comment and have been drafted by respected international institutions and organizations. Though at times it appears that Myanmar has regressed, it is unrealistic to expect a brutal dictatorship to transform into a full-fledged democracy overnight.
In terms of public opinion, the United States is held in high regard in Myanmar, especially among its youths. The Obama Administration's ongoing initiatives in culture and educational exchanges, including the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program (SEAYLP), Study of the U.S Institute for Scholars (SUSI), International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), and the Fulbright and Humphrey Fellowships have also positively reinforced that sentiment through local youth leaders. If anything, only further stalling and backtracking on the U.S's side will garner doubt and skepticism among the local populace, a sentiment I share with my contemporaries back home.

Mr. Kurlantzick continues,
"Myanmar remains extremely politically and economically unstable. Its volatility precludes investment and makes it difficult for the government to provide any substantive cooperation to the United States"

Lack of U.S. engagement in Myanmar is not the sole result of political instability, rather remaining restrictions and mixed messages from both the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress further hamper involvement. President Obama in his historic speech at the University of Yangon in 2012 promised that positive political trajectory on Myanmar's side will see increased social, political, and economic cooperation from the United States.
After all the progress Myanmar has made thus far, what tangible economic steps has the Administration really taken on its part to deliver on this promise? Despite the easing of the broadest sanctions, and a handful of general licenses that allowed Myanmar's basic economic sectors to function (including banking and trade networks), much of the sanctions regime remains intact. The U.S. Treasury Department's "SDN List" prohibits American businesses and individuals from engaging with many still sanctioned local corporations and Myanmar nationals. Despite a process to delist individuals and companies if they demonstrate, in a verifiable way, changed business practices and support for reform, there has been only one major removal. The SDN List thus continues to pose a major barrier to American businesses that wish to invest in the country.
Anyone who thinks the U.S. is doing too much or moving too fast with respect to Myanmar, quite frankly, is delusional. If anything, it is not doing nearly enough.
Additionally, the article goes on to claim,

"In Myanmar, members of the military allegedly have been involved in new paramilitary groups emerging throughout the country, burning down Muslims' homes and shops, massacring Muslim families, and bombing Muslim quarters of cities. Suu Kyi has said little about these attacks, drawing widespread criticism from the international community for her silence."

The Rohingya issue and anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar pose real problems, but this claim is largely exaggerated. Critics of Myanmar on this issue in particular tend to forget that the growing anti-Muslim sentiment is a challenge shared in many countries across the globe - with the refugee crisis in Europe, and the rise of Trump-ism in the United States, all of which share entrenched societal xenophobic and racist sentiments.
Since the Rakhine State riots in 2012, the paramilitary movement in Myanmar has lessened. The NLD earlier this month openly condemned Buddhist extremist groups such as Mabatha and the 969 movement, a commendable approach that will be reflective in its policies and legislation, moving forward.
At the root of the problem, as Suu Kyi has repeatedly explained to the international community, is the issue of Rule of Law and proper enforcement. Acts of aggression have been committed on both sides, and the situation of Muslims in Myanmar, though deplorable, does not constitute genocide. Additionally, transforming the ways people view Muslims is inherently difficult, a problem the United States knows all too well, and is not limited to Buddhist nationalist groups and paramilitary organizations. Tolerance and acceptance are values that must grow organically to spread throughout the country.
The article suggests,
"...[the United States] should restore the emphasis on democracy and human rights in the region. Washington also should refocus its aid on democracy promotion in East Asia, a policy shift that would be easier for Clinton if she were President, as she has been a longtime advocate of rights and freedoms in Asia."

I am, by no means, countering this to claim that democracy promotion through development aid from the United States is not important or necessary in Myanmar's case. But why does it have to be mutually exclusive from trade and investment? There is only so much development aid can accomplish, particularly given the political reality on Capitol Hill as a major challenge and an emphasis on earmarks and priorities that may fail to reflect reality on the ground. Foreign aid makes up less than 1% of the national budget and even that has received cuts this fiscal year. If partnered with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects from American companies operating in Myanmar, will not the U.S be able to better implement development programs in an increasingly robust and developed Myanmar?

Finally, with respect to the power balance between the United States and China in the region, Mr. Kurlantzick writes:

"The possibility that mainland Southeast Asian states will ally themselves more closely with China unless the United States aggressively cultivates them has also proved an unconvincing argument for the pivot. Myanmar is distancing itself from China. Many Myanmar officials note that the government is desperate for Western aid, investment, and relationships, and that a slower process of economic and diplomatic normalization with the United States would not have curbed that hunger for Western investment and relations."

While anti-Chinese sentiment among the populace exists, the political reality is that Myanmar cannot and will not turn its back on China. The two countries are too economically, socially, and politically intertwined that it would be unrealistic for Myanmar to cut ties with China in its embrace of the West. Myanmar's priority as of now is purely focused on its development, meaning the new administration is going to take a more pragmatic approach and partner with whichever nation that makes the most economic and political sense to do so. Moreover, China is not the only partner the United States is competing against in Myanmar. Japan is another regional giant that does not have China's reputational disadvantage and the United States' stringent regulations and limitations in place. The European Union too has lifted much of its remaining sanctions on Myanmar since 2012, and Canada has signaled it intends to do the same.
In conclusion, if the United States stalls on engagement and focuses primarily on aid as the article suggested, the groundwork this administration has established to build ties and relationships in Myanmar would have been for nothing. American businesses will continue to sit on the sidelines while China, Japan and other Western counterparts reap the benefits of Myanmar's emerging economy. Unlike the author may have suggested, the Myanmar people are not going to twiddle our thumbs and wait for "true democracy" (per unclear and ever-changing American standards) to come in the name of maintaining relations with the United States. There is hunger for one thing - economic growth: i.e. capital for sound infrastructure and a higher standard of living. After all, it's been a long time coming.

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