Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Rare Moment for Myanmar -- and America

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Rare Moment for Myanmar -- and America

Article excerpt

Burma's old antagonists are united in their desire for reform. The U.S. urgently needs to step up its efforts to help.

The lobby of the Traders Hotel in Yangon is buzzing in the early evening hours. The number of Chinese, Japanese, Europeans and Americans roaming the lobby is surprising. It's as if they are all here just waiting for the economic boom to happen.

In response to the political and economic reforms undertaken by the government of Myanmar, major U.S. sanctions have been suspended, albeit not removed. The opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made a triumphant tour of the United States. President Thein Sein, the military ruler credited with ushering in the new reforms, was also appropriately welcomed.

Having lived under house arrest off and on since 1989, the comparisons of Aung San Suu Kyi to Nelson Mandela are fitting. But Mandela needed his F.W. de Klerk, the South African political leader willing to push reform, however grudgingly, from within. People of courage and conscience are fighting injustice all over the world, but it is a rare moment in history when their desires overlap with the ruling regime.

After meeting with an array of leaders in Myanmar, we believe that Thein Sein is committed to transitioning to democracy. But the jury is still out on whether the reform effort will succeed. This is not a revolution like we've seen in Middle East countries during the last two years. This is a calculated and contained process -- a reform movement from within. On the one hand, it has to be slow and deliberate to allow for governing capacity to be built, as well as to prevent those who prefer the status quo from blocking change, and to keep oligarchs from seizing control and plundering Myanmar's abundant natural resources. On the other hand, it does need to move quickly so that the population will feel the benefits of reform. Success will rely heavily on full engagement and investment from abroad.

If the population does not feel the benefits of democracy and reform, chances are the process will fail.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself candidly admits that progress is not inevitable and that many challenges still remain.

First, the vast majority of people are very poor. Lifting their livelihood is in the interests of everyone involved -- the government, now that it will be directly elected, opposition parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, and the business community, which is excited by this potential market. Yet creating jobs and growing the economy will require tremendous efforts by all elements of Burmese society and by the international community.

As Aung San Suu Kyi said, people-friendly investments like small- scale farming and labor-intensive businesses are of highest priority. …

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