Encouraging Continued Reform in Burma

Burmese President Thein Sein will be visiting Washington next week. It’s the first trip by a Burmese head of state in nearly five decades and reflects the reform winds blowing through Naypyitaw.

Burma, or Myanmar, languished under brutal military rule for a half century before the armed forces moved into the background and created a nominal civilian government. Thein Sein is a former general and the retired junta leaders undoubtedly remain influential, though their exact role remains hidden.

Nevertheless, Burma has come far in the last couple of years. Many political prisoners have been released. Many restrictions over the media have been lifted. Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest and elected to parliament. Fighting has ceased against many separatist ethnic groups. Naypyitaw has distanced itself from its former patron, China.

There’s still more to be done. Conflict with the ethnic Kachin continues to ravage parts of Burma, while Buddhist mobs have been conducting a different form of war against Muslim Burmese. Nor is it certain that the military is prepared to fully yield power in 2015, when the next election is scheduled. Indeed, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, recently issued a report citing the need for additional reforms, which I discussed in a recent article in National Interest online.

Nevertheless, after spending years vying with North Korea for distinction as the world’s worst government, Burma now offers its people hope of liberating change. Ultimately enduring reform will come from inside Burma. But the West can help.

The best reward for Naypyitaw for continuing reform is steadily eliminating remaining economic sanctions. Foreign investment and trade will help moderate poverty, expand the middle class, and provide resources for democratic activism. Expanding the economic pie also would give government and security personnel a stake in a freer society in which their power is more limited.

But Washington and other democratic states should not bury Naypyitaw in foreign aid. Alas, history demonstrates that foreign “assistance” more often deserves to be called foreign hindrance, actually slowing reform and entrenching corrupt elites. Burma desperately needs a broader civil society as the foundation for a freer and more prosperous future.

There is a lot of bad news in the world today. Burma offers some welcome good news. Washington should use Thein Sein’s visit to encourage continuing political and economic reform.