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Too Fast, Too Soon

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
May 21, 2013
Foreign Policy


On Monday, Myanmar President Thein Sein had a historic meeting with President Barack Obama -- the first time a head of state from the country has visited the White House in nearly 50 years. Obama praised Thein Sein's leadership "in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform," before discussing joint projects that U.S. assistance will focus on in Myanmar, such as improving agriculture. A pleased Thein Sein replied, "I will take this opportunity to reiterate that Myanmar and I will continue to ... move forward so that we will have -- we can build a new democratic state -- a new Myanmar."

Talk about a reversal of fortune. Only three years earlier, not only would this meeting have been impossible, but nearly every top leader in Myanmar had been barred from entering the United States and most other leading democracies. Sanctions hobbled the country's economy. Members of the U.S. Congress regularly castigated Myanmar as one of the most tyrannical societies on Earth. Former President George W. Bush in 2007 even canceled a planned summit with the regional body the Association of Southeast Asian Nations simply to avoid having to interact with Myanmar.

In the days before Thein Sein's visit, nearly every U.S. official who spoke publicly about the country painted it as a potential model of emerging democratization -- a bright spot in a world where democracy has regressed for the past seven years, according to the global monitoring group Freedom House. Since the United States began easing sanctions in 2012, American companies have started to flow into Myanmar -- perhaps the largest untapped emerging market the world. In April, Ford announced that it will open a car dealership in Myanmar, the first major automaker to do so, while General Electric, Caterpillar, and many other multinationals are looking to expand their businesses there. The U.S. view on Myanmar has indeed switched 180 degrees -- yet it remains dangerously black and white.

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