Myanmar: progress and challenges as a global citizen
26 Sep 2013|

The Uppatasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital. Myanmar looks like it’s set to continue following the international ‘rules of the road’, as it has just signed the Additional Protocol to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements, the implications of which are detailed in Tanya Ogilvie-White’s November 2012 Strategist piece. While this has been received as a positive step from the reforming pariah state, the proof will be in the ratification and domestic enforcement, which could take years to materialise.

The protocol was signed in the Vienna International Centre on the sidelines of the IAEA’s Annual Meeting on 17 September by Myanmar’s foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. It follows an IAEA workshop in Nay Pyi Taw on State Systems of Accounting for and Control of Nuclear Material.

Such moves towards international norms are paying off. Corporations and nation-states are falling over themselves to invest in newly reforming Myanmar, reflected in estimated growth rates of 6.5% this year, and 6.7% projected for 2014. The US is a heavyweight in the pack, encouraging and harnessing Myanmar’s nascent economic, political and defence development, though not without a little hedging and shaping on the side. In August, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell vowed to boost American military ties with Myanmar’s armed forces, but the US has simultaneously increased pressure on Myanmar to sever its ties with North Korea: the US Treasury blacklisted senior General Thein Htay for his purchase of North Korean military goods. While the Myanmar government has claimed it knew nothing of the purchase, journalist Bertil Lintner (who himself spent 30 years on Myanmar’s blacklist) has told DVB in a recent interview that it would be ‘absolutely impossible’ for the trade to have proceeded without the seal of approval from President Thein Sein.

Mixed messages abound. Now that President Thein Sein is spearheading reform, any renegade action by Thein Htay might point to further fractures in the junta. This doesn’t bode well for future engagement with the international community and ASEAN, and the Myanmar government struggles with the dual yokes of administration and outreach.

The US maintains that its interest in Myanmar’s military development is purely of a humanitarian nature, predominantly concerned with law of armed conflict issues and professional practices in combat. Some regional analysts regard America’s interests are part of a broader strategy of containment, and much of the Chinese media is crying foul. Neighbouring state China has communicated its displeasure at having its old haunts disturbed by corporate contenders.

Myanmar is attracting plenty of foreign direct investment (FDI), which should enable the country to leap ahead, but it’ll be a challenge to make sure that governance keeps pace with the economy. While unprecedented growth in Myanmar looks great on charts and to prospective investors, it’s uncertain whether the fruits of the FDI surge will fall into the hands of the people tasked to make this happen. Too many cooks may spoil the delicate balance of power and wealth required to discourage corruption and encourage transparency.

Australia has several points of contact with Myanmar that make reform in that country a concern for us. The Australian presidency of the UNSC means we’ll be expected to show leadership in oversight on the Additional Protocol mandate in Myanmar. As well, Australia would like to see ASEAN functioning well and Myanmar will chair the group next year, and must be able to function effectively in that role.

The newly elected Australian government has vowed to slash foreign aid programs (PDF), and this doesn’t bode well for engaging Myanmar. The state is still ravaged by ethnic conflict, high socio-economic drift and a hideously unregulated grey and black market—it’s in the interests of ASEAN and the UN to encourage normative government-driven regulatory practices now, and to help facilitate the roll-out of new programs and diplomatic-social objectives, not least, transparency in weapons inspections.

Myanmar remains a work in progress. It’s taking some right steps, such as its recent moves to normalise its nuclear activities. As welcome as that is, the time it will take for the Additional Protocol to be drafted into domestic law is anyone’s guess. Signing an investment deal seems to carry much more weight in Myanmar right now, with tangible and almost instantaneous benefits to its signatories.

Sarah Norgrove is a research assistant as ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Wikimedia Commons.

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