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Issues & Insights Vol. 16, No. 5 – 16,000 problems: recommendations for the new Myanmar

In 2007, writing for Foreign Policy on “Asia’s Forgotten Crisis,” Michael Green and Derek Mitchell reflected on the misplaced hope in the mid-1990s that Myanmar was undergoing substantive reforms. They observed western governments’ policies of diplomatic and economic sanctions on the one hand with Asian states’ economic and political engagement on the other following. They concluded that neither approach worked and that, “If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious security threat of its neighbors.”

Hopes for reforms are again sky-high. The military junta controlling the country released opposition leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, and Thein Sein used his presidency since 2011 to set out major goals for reforms. In response, the US government under Barack Obama has eased sanctions against the country, and in 2012 Obama was the first US president to visit. Finally, with the landslide victory of Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s party in Myanmar’s first and fair election late last year, the country has emerged from decades of political isolation onto the world stage.

What next? The potential upside of reforms is enormous. Myanmar carried out elections and tallied the results far more fairly and smoothly than anyone anticipated. The Parliament (Hluttaw) has become a real legislative force in recent years, and the military handed over power to Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), on Feb. 1, 2016. In addition to these political developments, Myanmar has great economic potential given its location, abundant natural resources, and favorable demographics. The economy is growing, urban spaces are rapidly modernizing, and more people have cars and cellphones than ever before.

Yet as the Myanmar expression goes, “16,000 problems” still face the country as it transitions from longstanding military rule and isolation into a democratic and integrated member of Southeast Asia and the world. Broadly, one can divide these into domestic and foreign policy challenges. This collection of articles originates from the Pacific Forum CSIS/Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies US-UK-Myanmar Nonproliferation Dialogue in Yangon in December 2015 and addresses several of these challenges. Throughout all runs the thorny issue of civil-military relations in Myanmar. After more than half a century of military rule, the majority of Myanmar citizens has never experienced democracy. As they struggle to redefine their political system, there are many ways the international community can bolster reform efforts and prevent the kind of backsliding that occurred in the mid-1990s.