On Sept. 18 US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed visiting Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, democracy activist, former political prisoner, leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD) and current member of Myanmar’s parliament.
Suu Kyi was greeted by Clinton at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), where the Southeast Asian democracy icon delivered her address on the current and future orientation of US-Myanmar (also known as Burma) relations.
Examining her address, Suu Kyi fully understands the current development of complicated relations the United States has with China and she emphasized her speech in regards to this issue by saying that “US-Burma relations, at some degree, influence Burma-China and US-China relations”. Unlike traditional realist perspective in the foreign policy, she denoted the importance of constructive engagement among the three countries through orienting the policy and bilateral and trilateral relations among Myanmar and two major global powers in a positive fashion.
The democratic reform in Myanmar is surely far from the stage of consolidating. We, Indonesians, still vividly remember the human rights violations upon the Muslim ethnic in Rohingya, Rakhine state. The armed conflict between the central government and the people of Kachin state, northern part of Myanmar that borders with southern China, has intensified in the past days over natural resources’ profit redistribution issue.
The judicial system, as Suu Kyi acknowledged, is the weakest arm of Myanmar’s democracy which also implies that the rule of law is not strongly upheld. Indeed, there’s lot of homework of reform that has to be done in the country that is starting to re-open to the world.
One of the highlighted new developments is the market economy adopted in through the 2008 Constitution. This makes Myanmar the third supposedly socialist country with a market economic policy after China and Vietnam.
At this moment, Myanmar’s legislatures are drafting the law that will regulate foreign investment in the country despite the fact that some multinational corporations such as Chevron and Coca-Cola, already made the move to explore the new market.
Aside from the “report” delivered by Suu Kyi, her visit amplifies a broader and stronger message to the world, especially to her fellow citizens, and political affiliates back home.
First, her more-than-two weeks visit to the US coincided with the arrival of President Thein Sein to attend UN General Assembly in New York. Given the time imbalance with the president’s three day-visit, the US government’s failure to appropriately treat both Suu Kyi and Thein Sein may spark various interpretations in Myanmar.
Though election day is not in sight for another three years, any sudden move might incite extreme caution in the local politics enveloped with nothing but, for now, uncertainties. Thus, Washington must weigh wisely in giving signals to the president who arguably deserves credit in the opening of the country and the reform that follows.
Second, such unbalanced attention will provide a political loophole and opportunity that will undermine the current development of reform. Not to mention, God forbid, another coup attempt to overthrow the current administration. Thus, national integration in social and political realm will continue to pose as the ultimate challenge for democracy consolidation in Myanmar.
Third, in a wider extent, Myanmar’s relationship with ASEAN and also East Asian countries, notably China and Japan, is something the government and legislators at Nay Pyi Taw should not overlook given the closer physical distance and future relations in the region.
Being the ASEAN the country second to last in GDP, Myanmar has a lot of catching up to do especially when the goal of 2012 ASEAN Community is seriously considered. The challenge seems to be relatively heavier for Thein Sein and his administration with domestic political issues and other ASEAN member’s impeccable economic performance during recession in the US and Europe.
Japan, though facing its own economic problem as the aftermath of 2011 earthquake and tsunami, is committed to providing developmental assistance to the country it once occupied.
China, on the other hand, cannot be taken lightly. Despite the fact that the two countries have close political ties rooted to history (Burma was the first to recognize the People’s Republic of China’s independence), as neighboring countries, China and Myanmar have fences to set along their shared borderline.
The magnitude of China’s economic power can be either advantageous or burden for Myanmar to develop bilateral partnership in trade. This is where ASEAN should be able to reinforce and offer alternatives.
Finally, for a country with least-developed status, economic development with emphasis on poverty alleviation, education and healthcare provision, and fulfillment of other basic human rights is crucial.
Thus, the upcoming inflow of foreign direct investment should be somewhat transformed or indirectly address the challenges. The wisdom here is that Myanmar should not become another resort of “race to the bottom” as labor cost in China starts to swell up and impel foreign investors to alternate their capital investments.
As a leader in ASEAN, Indonesia should embrace the positive wave of transformation in Myanmar and offer assistance to tackle the myriad of problems it now facing.
Heru Prama Yuda
The writer is a master’s student at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, and recipient of a DIKTI 2012 scholarship.
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