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What action, if any, should be taken by outside actors to support reform in Myanmar?

Question submitted by Talee, December 4, 2013

Answered by: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia


Despite impressive changes over the past three years, Myanmar (or Burma) now faces growing insecurity and rising disappointment among citizens that reform has not brought higher standards of living. Interethnic and interreligious unrest now threaten to halt reforms altogether, depress much-needed investment, and could even lead to broader regional tensions.

In general, outside actors will have a large role to play in Myanmar's reform process, since the country, one of the poorest in Asia, badly needs large quantities of aid, expertise, and investment. For the moment, the United States is a relatively small player in Myanmar in terms of aid and investment and diplomatic ties.

Myanmar needs to create some degree of the rule of law, to halt tensions and allow the critical 2015 national elections to go forward. President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi need to take a stronger public stance against vigilante groups. Meanwhile, foreign donors including the United States should focus first on training the police before stepping up military-to military-aid to Myanmar.

Both the government and donors need to focus aid on building a national anticorruption commission as well as a sizable, Myanmar-wide job works program as soon as possible. Such a jobs program could help upgrade Myanmar's horrendous physical infrastructure and could provide work to hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men who otherwise might be drawn to join extremist groups.