There is a quiet intensity about Myanmar’s leadership these days — as if they’re gripping a precious metal to show enough of it to the onlooker without letting it slip through their fingers. They see a once-in-a-generation chance to bring the country back from the brink of failure, to hitch it to the growth train that has catapulted so many other Asian countries to prosperity in the last few decades.
“We want to retake our position in the region,” Than Swe, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States, said in a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat. It is a pithy summation of what unites Myanmar’s once heavy-handed leadership.
Myanmar — or Burma, as it is also called — was, in the 1950s and 1960s, a center of regional learning and culture rather than the object of pity and scorn it has devolved into since. Southeast Asia’s top university and hospital were in Yangon, the country’s largest city and former capital. The U.N. secretary-general through most of the 1960s was Burmese and known for playing peacemaker in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And, recalled Ambassador Swe, you could go almost anywhere in the world from Yangon airport. There was plenty to be proud of then.
But then the country known for its vast stock of jade began to lose its luster, spelling years of misery for its citizens. A band of generals led by Ne Win seized power in 1962. Businesses were nationalized, thousands emigrated and the economy sank. The military junta had put the once welcoming country on the path to pariahdom.
Generals have ruled the country in some form or another for the half-century since then. They weathered U.N. and U.S. sanctions, brutally put down a 1988 mass uprising and the “saffron” protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007, and notoriously kept aid out of the country when it was drowned by a cyclone the following year.
Writing on the Wall
It may never be too late to repent for autocrats as long as they control the fate of millions (and a wealth of natural resources). Perhaps realizing that they could not hold their citizens hostage forever in a globalized world, the junta began loosening its stranglehold on the economy a few years ago. It privatized a host of state assets and started issuing private permits for hospitals and schools. The generals even invited former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz to advise them on reviving the economy in December 2009.
With the Burmese perestroika came a bit of glasnost. Political prisoners were freed in spurts. The most famous of these prisoners, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was finally allowed to leave her home in Yangon and eventually re-enter politics.
Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma personified. Her father, Aung San, led the country to independence from Britain in 1948. She was imprisoned in her home shortly before her party won national elections in 1990, spending the better part of the next two decades under house arrest. Rather than try to flee the country, she suffered alongside her people as the junta’s squeeze tightened. The legitimacy gap between the kleptocrats running the country and the dissident holding its soul helped keep Myanmar on the mind of many a U.N. official trying to pry it open over the years.
So the junta’s untethering of Suu Kyi in recent years says a lot about the changes afoot in Myanmar, as does the unlikely partnership she has formed with President Thein Sein.
“What she and Thein Sein share is a common perspective that this is the window of opportunity for their country to move forward and out of this morass,” said Ernie Bower, head of Southeast Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C. think tank.
Suu Kyi, now a member of Parliament, and Thein Sein are part of a small cast of characters, including President Barack Obama, who are “vitally important in our process” of rapprochement with the United States, according to Ambassador Swe.
The ambassador — who was scheduled to leave his Washington post on June 20 — has had a front-row seat for the remarkable thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations over the last few years. He was Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations in September 2009 when he convened a private meeting on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly in New York City. In attendance were State Department officials Kurt Campbell and Scot Marciel from the American side, and a former ambassador to the U.S. from the Burmese side, Swe recalled. The meeting was a prelude to normalized relations and proof that the countries’ differences were surmountable. Swe gave Marciel some simple advice: “Go and see the country.”
Two years later, in November 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was touring the golden pagodas of Yangon, accompanied by smiling Burmese officials. And a year after that, Obama made the first-ever trip by a sitting American president to Myanmar.
“Not only the government, the ordinary people, normal citizens, have warmly welcomed [Obama] during his visit,” said Swe. The trip “paved the way to promote our bilateral relationship” and “signaled to the world, [the] international community, the United States’ support of our reforming process and our achievements,” he added.
The rapid rapprochement continued when Thein Sein came to Washington, D.C., this past May. Swe pointed proudly to that trip — the first by a Burmese head of state in nearly five decades — as evidence of how far the two countries have come together. Myanmar’s president met with the White House, leaders in the U.S. House and Senate and Burma watchers in a visit that would have been unthinkable just two years ago.
Some human rights groups say the Obama administration is showering the regime with rewards prematurely, losing critical leverage if reforms aren’t fully implemented. But Obama has been keen to show the military leadership tangible recognition for its about-face.
Bower, who has spent considerable time around Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, believes that the former gave the White House the go-ahead to invite the latter to Washington. And so it was that these unlikely bedfellows, the gallant face of Myanmar’s opposition and the modest regime insider, managed to pull off a string of diplomatic coups in their country’s relations with the world’s hegemon.
Few countries in East Asia are spared media scrutiny of how their foreign relations affect the balance of power between China and the United States in the region. Myanmar is no different because its opening up to the world has been, to some extent, a reaction to feelings of “claustrophobia about how dependent they had become on China,” as Bower put it.
A combination of Western-led sanctions and expanded Chinese investment in Myanmar caused Naypyidaw to rely on Beijing for 31 percent of its trade by 2011, according to International Monetary Fund data. Sanctions and embargoes left China with “a lot of advantages in business and using our resources,” Ambassador Swe reflected. This was not lost on ordinary Burmese, nor were their opinions so easily brushed aside. A public backlash over a Chinese-financed dam prompted Myanmar’s government to suspend the project in September 2011. The dam was to be funded by China Power Investment, a state-owned firm, and to funnel electricity to southern China.
“Being the government elected by the people, it upholds the aspiration and wishes of the people,” President Thein Sein said in a statement explaining the dam closure. The Burmese leadership was publicly acknowledging that too much economic “interference” from the Chinese left its people “unhappy,” as Ambassador Swe put it.
Perhaps with this public disillusionment with Chinese enterprise in mind, American firms have been queuing up to set up shop in Myanmar, according to the ambassador.
Last year, the Obama administration relaxed many U.S. restrictions against investment and travel in Myanmar, opening the floodgates for American businesses to tap a market of 55 million potential new consumers. Two big multinational corporations are already taking advantage of the opening: Last month Coke returned to the country after a 60-year absence, opening a bottling plant outside Yangon. The beverage giant and Unilever, which specializes in home, personal care and foods products, also announced that they would invest nearly $1 billion in Myanmar over the next decade, giving a much-needed manufacturing boost to a country where per-capita GDP is roughly $1,400 and much of the population lacks electricity.
Swe says his embassy is often flooded with requests for briefings on doing business in Myanmar. The U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Business Council, a D.C.-based trade lobby, has arranged for business delegations to tour the country, he noted.
Of course, foreign business opportunities in Myanmar needn’t be a zero-sum game. The Americans “don’t want to have Myanmar’s good story be a negative one for China,” Bower said. The United States might consider using ASEAN as a forum to assuage China’s sensitivities about a growing U.S. commercial presence in Myanmar, he suggested, adding: “I think China would want to probably participate because they want to be seen as a good neighbor, a player with positive impact in these new regional architectures.”
Myanmar might be amenable to that. “We have no other choice” but to cooperate trilaterally with China and the United States, Swe said. With 1,300 miles of shared border, “you cannot take Myanmar [physically] away from China,” he noted wryly. The Burmese are experiencing the pride felt by other fallen Asian countries now on the rise, including China itself. They want to simultaneously assert their independence and self-reliance while exploiting the interdependency of the global economy. “Myanmar doesn’t want to be sandwiched in [between] the United States and China,” but rather to chart its own course while cooperating with both, said Swe.
In doing so, Myanmar’s nominally civilian government still has to navigate a sea of problems. Political prisoners remain in jail. Newspapers are flourishing, but draconian laws against free speech remain on the books. Some highly touted reforms have stalled. Sectarian violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority is on the rise, and the government’s longstanding fight with ethnic Kachin rebels remains unresolved.
Perhaps most interestingly, Aung San Suu Kyi has evolved from revered democratic icon to deal-making politician. Once considered unassailable, her critics now accuse her of being co-opted by the military leadership that still effectively controls the country. Suu Kyi’s bid to change the constitution to sever that control, and allow her to run for president in 2015, will be the biggest test yet of the grand bargain she’s forged with President Thein Sein and whether the military generals will cede their authority to a democratically elected government.
The ambassador doesn’t seem fazed. He was a career military officer for 30 years before his stint as Myanmar’s man at the United Nations. He took on perhaps his most ponderous duty yet when, in July 2012, he became the country’s first official ambassador to the U.S. since 1990.
Shortly before his arrival, Myanmar’s embassy in Washington became a symbol not of the country’s diplomatic progress but of its political divisions. In 2011, the deputy chief of mission, Kyaw Win, and another diplomat defected and sought political asylum in the United States, embarrassing military rulers back home (also see “Burma’s Kyaw Win Talks About Defecting, Starting Fresh in U.S.” in the September 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Today, the small mission seems to have newfound purpose, eschewing intrigue for investment and shoring up U.S. ties. With only five embassy officials on hand, including Swe himself, the ambassador is a busy man as he wraps up his Washington posting. During his time here, he took up the challenge of invigorating life in a diplomatic residence that was shuttered for eight years prior to his arrival.
A teak table on which cooling tea sits evokes Burma’s wooded hinterland, as do sprawling charcoal landscape paintings. At the end of our conversation, the ambassador invited The Diplomat to the elevator and pointed to its certification date: 1931, and yet the rusted machinery guided us gently up and down the villa better than an elevator in a high-rise hotel. Myanmar was back on the right track, the ambassador had assured us.
About the Author
Sean Lyngaas is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.