Are the Recent Changes in Myanmar Irreversible?

8 June 2012, 15:33

U. W.: Professor Nathan, we have recently seen a number of changes in Myanmar, including the election of a non-military government, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the release of some 6,000 prisoners, of whom some 200 or so are said to be political prisoners. What is motivating these changes and how do you see them progressing?

In my view, one chief motivation for the opening was the sense that Myanmar was excessively dependent on China. China’s influence was increasing and it enjoyed almost a free hand in Myanmar economically. A second motivation may have been the country’s poverty and the hope that by opening up to the West, the country could begin to develop and move out of poverty. However, these factors have been present for a long time, so I don’t know what can explain the timing of the change. Obviously, there was a transition of power and a new president gained authority. Perhaps he had been harbouring ideas of reform for a long time, but had not had the power to implement change. Also, Burma was due to occupy the rotating chair of ASEAN and perhaps wished to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment that would arise as other ASEAN states, and democracies outside of ASEAN, pressed the country to reform or else to give up its turn at the presidency.

U. W.: Can we say the changes in Myanmar are irreversible?

I think it’s too soon to say that. So far it seems to be going smoothly. But we don’t know to what extent Thein Sein commands widespread support within the military. If some of the powerful military leaders oppose what he is doing, they may be able to stop him.

U. W.: Is the country transitioning to democracy?

It is moving in that direction. However, it still has a long way to go before we can say that the basic requirements of democracy have been achieved.

U. W.: Has the Arab Spring impacted developments in Burma?

I do not think that it has. Burma is not a Muslim country, so I don’t think the people identify that much with the Arab Spring. And the Arab Spring was a popular revolt. The Burmese opening is coming from the top down.

U. W.: What will be the most difficult part of Burma’s transition?

I think there are two huge issues. One is the vast privileges of the military. They enjoy wide economic, social, and political special privileges. Will they give them up and take on the more limited role of a professional military that is loyal to civilian leaders? Second, there is the problem of the many disaffected minority groups and the issue of whether the central government can reach agreements with these groups that will be stable and will allow the end of insurgencies and integration of the minorities into a democratic system where their rights will be protected.

U. W.: Other countries such as India, Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbours also factor into any discussion of Myanmar, and Myanmar is being considered to chair ASEAN as early as 2014. How are these relationships evolving and are there any major developments we should be aware of moving forward?

If I am right in my speculation that a primary motive of the reform is to diminish Myanmar’s excessive economic, political, and strategic dependence on China, then it stands to reason that Myanmar will seek relations with many other partners – obviously the U.S., but also nearby India, which has a historical relationship with Myanmar since both were part of the British Indian Empire, and with Japan, which has the potential to invest there. There are many Myanmar refugees in Thailand as well as in Bangladesh (the Rohingya refugees), and the improvement of conditions within Myanmar have the potential to reduce refugee flows and possibly create conditions for some refugees to return, which would improve relations with those neighbouring states.

U. W.: Myanmar is strategically located between India and China. Does this explain its great interest to the U.S.?

Myanmar’s move to open relations with other countries definitely reduces its value as a strategic asset for China and provides a boost for U.S. strategy in Asia. A second reason for U.S. interest has been the human rights issue. The human rights abuses of the Myanmar regime have received a lot of notice in the West, and the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has enhanced that attention.

U. W.: Some say the regime undertook its recent reforms because of a believe that China is gaining too much influence in the country and because of a desire to want the United States and the international community as a counterbalance. What is your view?

I agree with this analysis.

U. W.: Is there reason to be hopeful about Burma’s future?

The reason for hope stems from the fact that the reform process should produce great benefits for Myanmar, especially greater strategic independence and enhanced economic development. These benefits may be an incentive to the regime to continue the reforms.

Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His teaching and research interests include Chinese politics and foreign policy, the comparative study of political participation and political culture, and human rights. He is currently engaged in longterm research and writing on Chinese foreign policy and on sources of political legitimacy in Asia, the latter research based on data from the Asian Barometer Survey, a multi-national collaborative survey research project active in 18 countries in Asia.

Nathan is also chair of the administrative committee of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and chair of the Morningside Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Columbia. He served as chair of the Department of Political Science, 2003-2006, chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 2002-2003, and director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, 1991-1995. Off campus, he is co-chair of the Human Rights in China board, a member of the boards of Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch, Asia, which he chaired from 1995-2000. He is the regular Asia and Pacific book reviewer for Foreign Affairs.

Nathan’s books include Peking Politics, 1918-1923 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976); Chinese Democracy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985); Human Rights in Contemporary China, with R. Randle Edwards and Louis Henkin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China's Search for Security, with Robert S. Ross (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997); The Tiananmen Papers, co-edited with Perry Link (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001); China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, co-authored with Bruce Gilley (New York: New York Review Books, 2003); How East Asians View Democracy, co-edited with Yun-han Chu, Larry Diamond, and Doh Chull Shin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); and China’s Search for Security, co-authored with Andrew Scobell (Columbia University Press, 2012).

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