Supporting reform in Myanmar: in Australia’s best interests
18 Dec 2013|

Myanmar templeIn May 2013, Myanmar’s President U. Thein Sein made an unprecedented trip to the United States where he met with American President Barak Obama. The visit was perhaps one of the most visible signs of a country that is rapidly re-entering the mainstream of international politics after years of self-imposed isolation. There are numerous pitfalls that could yet stymie this process of rehabilitation, however—which Australia has both the means and self-interest to help address.

Since assuming the Presidency in 2011, Thein Sein has overseen a major reform process in Myanmar. In the space of two years, prisoners of conscience have been released, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from home detention, initiatives have been enacted to attract foreign overseas investment, centralised controls over the media have been rolled back, and concerted efforts have been made to forge comprehensive ceasefires with ethnic rebels. For anyone who follows developments in Myanmar closely, the scale and rapidity of these changes has been nothing short of remarkable.

That said, there’s an array of internal problems that continue to confront Myanmar. The main ones are: widespread poverty and underdevelopment; a lack of administrative and institutional capacity; a governing system that lacks true transparency and which continues to favor the military; a tenuous insurgent peace process that that could yet unravel; a dangerous escalation of sectarian religious violence between Muslims and Buddhists; and competing regional major power plays, as both China and the US vie for influence in the country.

The Abbott government has a vested interest in assisting Myanmar overcome these challenges. Helping secure the country’s rehabilitation by ensuring a successful transition to civilian rule will open up a lucrative investment market, possibly help to stymie the production and trafficking of heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants and provide the necessary conditions for professionalising what has hitherto been a highly abusive defence structure. It’d also make a significant contribution to consolidating the much touted ASEAN Political, Security and Economic Community, which is due to come on line in 2015, and which will spur the development of a major trading bloc in the Southeast Asian region.

There are several ways that Australia can support Myanmar’s further development. Politically, Canberra could usefully buttress the country’s nascent democratisation by assisting domestic political parties build institutional capacity so they can act as effective forces in a vibrant and competitive executive–opposition system.

In the economic realm, Australia could redirect some of its foreign direct investment to boost productivity in Myanmar’s agricultural sector and open up the fledgling—but potentially highly lucrative—oil and gas, mining and construction sectors.

In terms of domestic security, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) could support law enforcement capacity building in Myanmar to help deal with mutual transnational issues of concern, such as the drugs trade, human trafficking, illegal migration, modern-day slavery and child-sex tourism. The AFP’s International Deployment Group could also usefully work with governing authorities in Naypyidaw to consolidate the ceasefire agreements that have been concluded with ethnic insurgencies and marginalise the actions of potential spoilers seeking to undermine these accords.

On a wider defence level, Australia could engage the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), placing a premium on professional military education and modernisation, particularly in the areas of human rights, international rules of war and civil–military relations.

Finally, Canberra could consider leveraging Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, as well as its exceptionally close diplomatic relationship with the US, to work with ASEAN in pushing for an end to all American trade and financial sanctions against Myanmar.

Moving quickly to support the Naypyidaw government in these areas is important, not least because of the criticality of 2014, when Myanmar takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN. Assisting the government to effectively discharge its responsibilities in this high-profile role will allow the government to showcase the country’s full return to the stage of regional politics and, in so doing, open the way for the full institutionalization of relations based on engagement and partnership.

Peter Chalk is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and is the author of On the path of change: Political, economic and social challenges for Myanmar, published by ASPI today. Image courtesy of Flickr user eGuide Travel.