I listened to President U Thein Sein address a packed crowd at Chatham House last night regarding the future of Burma/Myanmar. The event was not short on pageantry, nor on protest, both of which we now come to expect during a visit from an acting head of state. The contrast between the motorcade of BMW 760Lis flying down Piccadilly and the small but dedicated band of scrappy pedestrian activists from the Kachin Relief Fund carrying homemade signs agitating for Thein Sein’s arrest for war crimes echoed the stark disparity that still permeates the country, despite the reforms President Thein Sein champions.
The President made some surprisingly bold remarks, and I have to say I was surprised to find myself impressed by his relative candor in addressing the myriad human rights challenges his country faces, from allegations of ethnic cleansing in Arakan state to the ongoing controversy regarding the Myitsone Dam (which he suspended), and other similar projects such as the Tamanthi Dam, which has reportedly displaced more than 2,000 people. He appeared to possess a keen awareness of how to pitch himself to a room full of international policy wonks, and his words came across as remarkably sincere – at least in translation. Don’t get me wrong – as a politician, his words were measured, and we as the international community must assess his actions above his rhetoric – but the gravity of going on record with the following promises and projections would not have been lost on him:
1) Political transformation: All prisoners of conscience will be released by the end of 2013. For a country which has not officially acknowledged that it incarcerated political prisoners at all, this was probably the boldest statement of the night, and I hope he is held accountable to it.
2) Economic transformation: Among other things, Myanmar intends to become a party to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which requires governments to disclose revenues from oil, gas, and mining activities and to submit to robust civil society oversight.
3) Peaceful transformation: Due to ongoing negotiations with the Kachin Independence Organization (the only remaining non-state armed group which has yet to sign a ceasefire), the possibility that Burma/Myanmar can achieve complete and stable peace is no longer remote; indeed, the next few weeks could bring an end to the conflict nationwide, the first peace in the country in 60 years.
Burma is a veritable crucible in the business and human rights context, and the President addressed his planned economic reforms at length. He made clear that foreign direct investment will be a crucial part of Burma’s transition from a state-centered and isolated economy to a globally-integrated free market system. Of fundamental importance in this endeavor will be the recently issued Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements, which the US introduced to promote development and transparency following the easing of long-standing sanctions. The President further cited the challenges of urbanization, avoiding the ‘resource curse’, abolishing aid dependency, and tempering the consequences of mass tourism, as well as emphasizing the importance of ‘people-centered development’ and the need to overcome the inertia of isolation to create a new culture of democracy and citizenship. He then ended his remarks by paraphrasing Kofi Annan:
Without peace, there can be no development. Without development, there can be no peace. And without human rights, there can be neither.
Challenges remain for Burma as it transitions, and we should carefully watch and pragmatically support this monumental process while resisting the hangover of sanctimoniousness now that sanctions have been lifted and the country is ‘opening up.’ I, for one, will be following with great interest, and I hope that when I next return to Burma it will be well on the path to achieving these stated goals of peace, reconciliation, and prosperity.
p.s. For anyone interested in reading about Burma in more detail, I highly recommend Thant Myint-U‘s Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia – it came recommended by Lionel Barber of the FT and, so far, is excellent.