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The mysterious opening of Myanmar

A sudden transformation suggests the limits of international pressure

Female prisoners released from the central prison in Yangon in October.
Female prisoners released from the central prison in Yangon in October.Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past six months, one of the world’s most striking and surprising political transformations has been underway in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly Burma. In a country ruled for five decades by a repressive military government, and in which only four years ago the security forces brutally beat and killed monks peacefully protesting in the streets, a new civilian government — chosen last fall in the first elections held in 20 years — has suddenly shown dramatic signs of political opening and reform.

Though Myanmar’s new government is led by a former officer of the military regime, it has unexpectedly reached out to the opposition, freed political prisoners, called for an end to censorship and a return of all exiles, begun opening the economy by privatizing state companies, and bent to public protests by halting a major dam project in the north of the country.


 Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet in Myanmar last week.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet in Myanmar last week.saul loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The changes have been welcomed by Burmese and by longtime foreign observers of the country, many of whom did not expect to see any change on this scale in their lifetimes. The Obama administration has cautiously acknowledged Myanmar’s steps toward reform by sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the country this week, the first visit of such a senior American official to Myanmar in nearly 50 years. During her visit, she met both with government officials and with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the United States announced on Thursday that it will begin to relax some restrictions on Myanmar and discuss further upgrading diplomatic relations. “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress [in Myanmar] in these last several weeks,” said President Obama, in a speech mentioning Myanmar during his trip to Asia this month.

 Burmese citizens in Malaysia protest a dam project in northern Myanmar.
Burmese citizens in Malaysia protest a dam project in northern Myanmar.str/AFP/Getty Images/AFP

Yet there is also an aspect of Myanmar’s potential transition that should be unsettling to policy makers: It appears to bear little relation to the decades of effort by outside nations, including the United States, to push the military regime to loosen its grip and to open up economically. Indeed, the Burmese regime has long stood firm against tough pressure by Western nations including the United States, as well as trade and investment entreaties by countries like Thailand and India, which they hoped would bring Myanmar more into the fold of the international community. Then, this past spring, for reasons still not understood even by close observers, change finally seemed to begin.


In the international community, much rests on the basic idea that diplomatic pressure can work — that closed societies can open up, or people become freer, if outside nations exert enough leverage. But much as the Arab uprising this year surprised nearly all the experts on the Middle East, Myanmar’s sudden reforms suggest, somewhat worryingly, that those expectations could be misguided — and that the world still has little idea why, and when, countries will change.

When it achieved independence from Britain in 1948, Burma seemed like a potential success story: a country with bountiful natural resources, a middle class, and a relatively strong education system. But after a brief experiment with democracy, its government was commandeered by the military in 1962. The army simply never let go, renaming the country and turning it into one of the world’s most closed and isolated societies.

Decades of military rule all but destroyed Myanmar’s infrastructure and economy. Electricity barely functioned in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) and other cities; the Human Development Index, a United Nations ranking of nations by overall standards of living, ranks Myanmar 149th in the world, far below neighbors like Thailand and Malaysia. On my own visits to Myanmar over the past 15 years, for reporting and research, I found the public’s fear of the government palpable. Friends and acquaintances would look around constantly to see if they were being followed or watched by operatives from the feared military intelligence agency. Sources would only speak to me once we had moved into the corner of a tea shop, where no one could hear us.


The armed forces did allow one relatively free election, in 1990, in response to an economic crisis and nationwide unrest that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence. But when Suu Kyi’s party decisively won the election, the military essentially annulled the results, and placed her under house arrest on and off for two decades.

Since then, human rights abuses in Myanmar have spiraled from bad to horrendous. Human rights organizations accused the armed forces of using rape as a weapon of war, demanding forced labor, and committing summary executions. Even minor cases of political dissent were punished severely: Burmese comedians were tossed into harsh prisons for telling mild jokes about the government.

Since the early 1990s, when Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize helped bring the Burmese people’s suffering to the world’s attention, the international community has tried to push for change. Appalled at the repression, the United States, Europe, and other wealthy democracies applied sanctions prohibiting new investment, prohibited Myanmar’s leaders from entering their countries, and downgraded their diplomatic ties. Washington first slapped on sanctions in 1997, and over the years Congress tightened them; Myanmar was a rare issue that gained bipartisan support, with the sanctions routinely passing the Senate by nearly unanimous votes.


Myanmar’s neighbors, like Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, meanwhile, took a different approach. They continued doing business with the Burmese leaders, and allowed Myanmar to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the most important regional organization, in the 1990s. At the time, Southeast Asian leaders argued that once in Asean, Myanmar’s leaders would have more contact with the outside world, see how freer economics and politics had brought prosperity to neighboring nations, and want to open their own country more.

Both pressure and engagement are widely seen as important tools in the international playbook for promoting openness. South Africa’s apartheid regime yielded to economic sanctions, for instance, and in the late 1980s, greater interaction between Eastern Bloc nations and the West helped open up those countries and, eventually, bring down the Berlin Wall.

Yet for decades, Myanmar’s leaders simply resisted, tightening its shuttered society even further, and harshly repressing protests when they happened. Then, last fall, the Burmese military held a national election. Although it would be the first election since 1990, few observers expected the vote to bring real change: Many thought it was an attempt to create a veneer of civilian rule, behind which the military would still exert control. Electoral laws and other regulations were heavily weighted in favor of the army’s anointed parties, and in response, Suu Kyi’s party boycotted the election. Most Western observers, including the US government, condemned the election and predicted that little would come of it. Clinton declared the vote a failure almost immediately after it happened: “The generals who have ruled the country for the past 22 years missed an opportunity to begin genuine transition toward democratic governance and national reconciliation,” she said shortly afterward.


Yet what happened next surprised everyone. Though the new president was a former military man, Thein Sein, his government soon launched a dialogue with Suu Kyi, who had been released from house arrest. As the dialogue gained steam, Suu Kyi was allowed to travel the country; she has drawn cheering crowds in towns outside Yangon, the largest city. Last month, the government declared that she would be allowed to reenter politics, and she plans to run for a parliamentary seat in the next election.

Recent visitors to Myanmar, and many Burmese themselves, say the entire feel of the country seems to be changing, at least outside of more remote, ethnic-minority regions that are less affected by national politics and still consumed by insurgencies. Following a recent visit to the country, the American special envoy for Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, noted there were “encouraging signs” of change in a place that had remained frozen in time for decades.

Since Myanmar remains relatively opaque, it is impossible to know for sure why change is happening. Much of the country is still off-limits to foreign visitors, and even the most senior foreign officials have had only brief meetings, if any, with top generals like former junta leader Than Shwe. The Burmese government is known for its almost arbitrary decision-making: In 2005, it suddenly moved the capital from Yangon to the town of Naypyidaw in the center of the country, catching even foreign diplomats living in Yangon largely unaware.

But whatever is motivating the government’s new changes, there’s no reason to believe it was international pressure. Unlike in South Africa, where economic sanctions and international sports boycotts had a noticeable effect, the Burmese government had long proved indifferent to international opinion. And the financial sanctions, imposed only by Western nations, seemed to have little impact on the country’s leaders, in part because Myanmar found ways to keep enough cash flowing from elsewhere. Indeed, the sanctions may have been counterproductive: The Burmese regime turned to other rogue states for aid and assistance, which only made it harder for Western actors to influence Myanmar, and may have led to other worrying developments. Myanmar’s government has shown an interest in building a nuclear weapon with the help of North Korea, Senator Richard Lugar told reporters before Clinton’s trip to Myanmar.

Myanmar’s democratic neighbors took a different approach, offering trade and diplomatic ties partly in order to pry the country open. India and Indonesia, two of the world’s largest and most vibrant democracies, exert significant influence in Myanmar: India has become Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner, while Indonesia’s president, a former general himself, has tried to offer the Burmese military guidance on reform. Yet there is little evidence that either of these two giants changed the Burmese military’s mind — to the contrary, despite their democratic credentials, both India and Indonesia in recent years appeared to become more willing to simply support the Burmese generals. Both countries’ UN voting records in that time indicate little willingness to enforce human rights outside their borders, according to a study by Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution. Indeed, even after the Burmese regime beat and slaughtered monks in the streets in September 2007, India ignored the crackdown, sending its petroleum minister to Myanmar to hunt for new deals.

It’s possible that Myanmar’s reform actually comes in response to a very different foreign actor: China.

Burmese citizens in Malaysia protest a dam project in northern Mayanmar.
Burmese citizens in Malaysia protest a dam project in northern Mayanmar.STR/AFP/Getty Images/AFP

For years, observers had said that the country was becoming virtually a Chinese client state, with Beijing offering a rich source of trade, aid, investment, and diplomatic cover for Myanmar’s military regime. Against that background, the current reforms are striking in part for how they defy Chinese interests. In particular, the dam postponed by the new government was funded by China — and following the postponement, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, delivered a tough warning to Myanmar not to disregard the “legitimate rights” and “the interests of Chinese companies.”

Some observers, and Burmese analysts themselves, suggest that the new openness may stem from Burmese leaders’ fear that they had grown too dependent on Beijing. For a government that wants to diversify its foreign partners in order to reduce its ties to China, the West is a natural balance. That concern is shared by many Burmese citizens I have met, who have told me they were furious that Chinese companies were profiting from Myanmar’s natural resources while seemingly doing little to help the Burmese population.

Another theory is that Myanmar’s longtime rulers — including the long-ruling senior general, Than Shwe, who formally stepped down after the elections last fall — may have realized that a slow and stable reform process might be in their interest. It could allow them to hold on to the wealth that they and their families have accumulated by running the country, and to avoid the prosecutions — or, as in Libya, the killings — that would likely follow any kind of revolutionary change.

In their suddenness and unpredictability, both the Arab uprisings and Myanmar’s reforms offer a lesson: Epochal changes are still determined primarily by local factors. They can be set off by surprising sparks, whether it is the self-immolation in Tunisia last winter or, against all odds, an apparently genuine election in Myanmar. This is not to say that the United States and other concerned nations should give up on the idea that they can help to shape the future of closed nations. But they should also keep in mind that helping, rather than determining, is probably the best they can do.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.