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Myanmar’s Political Future: Is Waiting for the Perfect the Enemy of Doing the Possible?

Robert H. Taylor


Myanmar’s strategic significance is heightened in the current war against terrorism. This requires the United States and its Western allies to re–examine their policies toward the country. Myanmar holds a crucial position at the hub of the Asian balance of power. Real and enduring interests are at stake. Tragically, real lives are being blighted by policies which ignore the complexities of Myanmar’s place in global politics, as well as the country’s complex political, social, and economic conditions. The politics of human rights is more complex and multifaceted than the ballot box alone; indeed, a long view on these issues requires a historical perspective to grasp what is politically feasible within the country.

In the post–Cold War period, U.S. policy toward Myanmar has been predicated on a fallacious assumption based on an incorrect analogy. Myanmar is not South Africa. Its politics are more complex than a battle of democracy versus authoritarianism. Western economic sanctions, applied against one of the poorest peoples and governments of Asia, have demonstrably failed to improve the situation of the country.

The Myanmar army seized power in September 1988 because of the blatant failure of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party’s (BSPP) autarkic socialism. The country was virtually bankrupt and economically and technologically far behind its Asian neighbors. After a period of civil violence, military leaders seized power and opened up the country, seeking foreign partners in development and reform. However, that invitation to international engagement was rejected by those who, in the earlier circumstances of the Cold War, would likely have embraced the Myanmar military as agents of pro–Western change.

Within the military are reformers who understand the necessity of power–sharing and democratization, of liberalization and economic reform. However, Western policies designed to create a civilian democratic regime have solidified the hold on power of officers reacting against the West’s demands. The U.S. policy of ever–tighter sanctions has undermined the positions of the reformers, delaying movement to create a role for civilians in governing Myanmar. Only a different policy might strengthen the process of democratization in Myanmar. Only a longer view can save yet another generation from losing the opportunity to create a viable civil society.

On what premise can one base a new approach to Myanmar? There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for constructive political change in the country. Prime Minister Khin Nyunt’s road map of August 30, 2003, which would...

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