from Asia Unbound

Ban Ki-moon Goes to Myanmar: What He Should Be Looking For

April 25, 2012

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will travel to Myanmar later this week to observe the country's democratic transition.
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The UN secretary general is shortly headed to Myanmar to observe the country’s reforms, and ahead of his visit his special advisor on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, told the press that the country had the potential to be the next Asian tiger, as it emerges from its hibernation and begins to attract significant investment. But Ban, who in the past has taken a relatively meek approach to the Myanmar government and military, should be coming in this time more empowered, able to go where he wants, and able to try and answer some of the big questions about the reform process. During his visit, he should try to address the following themes:

  • Who is in charge of the conflict in the Kachin area? While the government has worked effectively and promisingly toward ending, for good, many of the conflicts in ethnic minority areas, the conflict in the Kachin area continues to spiral downhill toward full-scale war. Some Burmese officials suggest that the president does not support the way the military has handled the Kachin conflict. Is this true —which would suggest that the military has an enormous amount of freedom still in its regional commands? Is it false, and is Thein Sein just being used as reformist cover? Either way, some clearer answers need to emerge, as well as a comprehensive policy for handling Kachin refugees.
  • Is the international community going to have any coordination in how it handles the reforms, as well as new investment going into Myanmar? During the past two decades, most major democracies, including the United States, Japan, Australia, Europe, and Canada operated relatively cohesively in dealing with Myanmar. Sure, there were divisions on Myanmar policy —Japan often wanted to engage more, and at times so did Australia and several European nations. The types of sanctions differed somewhat; the type and nature of aid differed among democracies. But overall, a general consensus held. Now, with reforms happening quickly, sanctions being suspended or lifted, and aid and investment beginning to flow in, any consensus seems to have been lost. The problem could arise as has happened in Cambodia, where savvy prime minister Hun Sen has learned to play different donors off of each other, with the result of him almost always getting his way —to the detriment of Cambodia’s rule of law and approach toward corruption. Some more effective consensus needs to arise on Myanmar among the major Western democracies, in order to avoid aid duplication, provide channels for effective investment, coordinate policies on refugees and rights, and other issues. The UN would be the obvious player to lead that coordination.
  • What are the new red lines in Myanmar for civil society? Until two years ago, the red lines were pretty clear: There was basically no freedom of the press, assembly, speech, etc, and there was no allowed opposition to government. Now, the red lines have become blurrier — and in some ways, harder for Myanmar civil society to interpret. The press is freer, and yet officials are still pushing editors to censor some publications, and still arresting some journalists. As a result, as in China, journalists in Myanmar now do not know what will or won’t get them in trouble. The same blurriness applies to union protests, political campaigning, NGO work, and other types of civil society actions.
  • How engaged will China be with the leading democracies during the reform process?  In some other countries, China has participated in donor groups, even if it has not been willing to coordinate its aid with other countries. China also has an enormous stake in Myanmar’s stability and prosperity, more so than any other country except Thailand; I do not believe that China necessarily prefers an authoritarian government in Myanmar, especially if that authoritarian government pursued policies that led to poverty and conflict. A stable, democratic government would, I think, be fine with China, but in the period between authoritarian rule and a stable democracy (a period which could be a long, long, long time) will China be a net positive actor pushing toward that democracy, even if that push leads to instability for a period of time? Or will it prove nostalgic for the more closed, authoritarian Myanmar during the reform period, and its instability?