President Obama comes to Myanmar on Monday with the country at a crossroads, poised for a huge transition into what some consider the next Asian economic frontier. After five decades of military rule and international pariah status, Myanmar (also known as Burma) shows signs of becoming a politically open society and an emergent economic powerhouse, with major corporations and investors looking to capitalize on the expected boom.
One Singaporean I spoke with, a businessman who travels there regularly, sees Myanmar, a nation of 60 million, as the center of gravity for the Asian economy in a decade’s time, in part because of its strategic location between India and China. No country is better physically situated to capitalize on its vast wealth of natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, timber, tin, fisheries, and the potential to again become one of the world’s top rice exporters.
Others see Obama’s visit in highly political terms, as another move in the pivot toward Asia and a strategy designed to check an increasingly assertive China and its sway over Myanmar as the latter seeks new openings to the West. Obama’s November 17-20 Southeast Asian tour also includes stops in Cambodia and Thailand, with Myanmar the trip’s historic highlight, the first visit by a sitting American president and a clear signal of US engagement and encouragement for its democratic advances. In Yangon, Obama will meet two of the dominant players in Myanmar’s democratic changes — reformist President Thein Sein, who took office last year, and pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose release from house arrest and election to parliament is a highly visible symbol of the new openness.
Skeptics say Obama’s visit to Myanmar is too soon, and should be held off as a bartering chip for the kind of human rights reforms that will be necessary for the nominally civilian government to make amends for the country’s long history of military dictatorship, imprisonment of hundreds of political dissidents, and unresolved ethnic strife. The Washington-based US Campaign for Burma called on Obama to cancel the trip until more progress is made on the human rights front, while other human rights groups worry the visit will be counter-productive.
Myanmar’s steady movement toward political and economic change comes without Arab-spring like street protests and desperate social media posts. The government faced no urgent domestic or international crises to prompt real change. Yet Myanmar’s ruling generals have long known that for the country to develop economically, it needs to become more outward-reaching, cut back on its political and economic reliance on China, work to end the punishing economic sanctions imposed by the US and other Western nations, and re-engage its neighbors and the West.
Obama’s visit will encourage that progress, but outcomes are uncertain. In addition to resolving deep-seated ethnic strife between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims, easing the desperate poverty of the Myanmarese people, and moving away from its history of political repression, Myanmar will not succeed as an emergent economy if it cannot build an adequate infrastructure to support the living standards and economic security the country aspires to. That includes not just roads, bridges, investment laws, an open media, etc., but individual access to banking, health care, and education. Until then, Myanmar may serve as a kind of Asian Wild West, luring international capital to a country not ready to handle a better future.