Change is taking place in Myanmar.
The dramatic signs of this transition are everywhere. Since the geographically- and ethnically-diverse country that had been under military rule for half a century elected its first civilian government in 2010, a series of rapid and dramatic reforms have taken place to allow freedom of expression, open the economy and consolidate peace. The government has also taken the first tentative steps toward decentralization.
Some outsiders have seized upon these changes as an opportunity to invest in the country, taking advantage of its rich natural resources, underdeveloped markets and a government eager to assume a greater role in global society. But tensions persist: wealth and power remain in the hands of a small minority, ongoing religious and ethnic violence are keeping regions of the country unstable, and decades of abuse and neglect have left many citizens fearful, suspicious and confused.
The result of all this is that Myanmar’s move to peace and progress are largely dependent upon political and economic reforms that are emerging unevenly.
Visibility vs. vulnerability
After undertaking a combined economic, governance and conflict assessment in one of Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions, it is our belief that the greatest threat to the country’s transition is not from obvious, attention-grabbing flashpoints, but rather from a deeper, more basic struggle to adjust to the changes taking place.
As we wrote in a recently released report, “Visibility versus Vulnerability: Understanding Instability and Opportunity in Myanmar,” there’s a more fundamental challenge that must be overcome if Myanmar is to address its instability and move forward peacefully.
No doubt, the country is navigating a tricky terrain of transition, where peace and progress are largely dependent upon political and economic reforms. For the reforms to be successful, ordinary people need to see tangible changes that improve their economic opportunities and general wellbeing. However, the current conflict-governance-economic dynamics are an underlying vulnerability that can slow the pace of reform and its benefits.
What’s needed is a shared space — an intellectual space where citizens can share experiences, express ideas, engage and learn from what they are experiencing. This metaphorical space — where ideas grow and open systems of government emerge — has never existed in Myanmar.
It isn’t so much that radically different viewpoints are derailing progress, as is typical in conflicted nations. The problem is that by and large, the citizens, especially those throughout its ethnic regions, have no frame of reference with which to understand the radical changes they are experiencing, no forums where they can figure it out, nor opportunities to adapt to and participate in accelerating both the peaceful transition and economic development.
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A ticking clock
Due to Myanmar’s history of mistrust and fear, many citizens are either unable or unwilling to embrace the changes taking place.
At the same time, the country is moving ahead, fueled in part by outside interests who are entering into what they see as a market with great potential. The danger, then, is this: if economic development takes place to the exclusion of poor ethnic minorities, Myanmar runs the risk of alienating huge segments of its population to the benefit of a few key players and outside interests.
What’s more, time is of the essence. Those in the domestic private sector — from large businesses to smallholder farmers, entrepreneurs and small enterprise owners — who do understand the transition process are eager to be a part of it, and must feel tangibly connected. Communities and the private sector alike must benefit from the roads being built, the jobs being opened up, and the opportunities available to them that never before existed.
Well-meaning external organizations can help catalyze this process by providing opportunities for interaction among citizens, the decentralized government and the private sector creating situations in which different groups can work together. Efforts should focus on supporting the capacity of civil society to be productive and responsible accountability partners for government. They should also allow for creating forums that provide the public, private and civil society sectors the space to explore models and incentives for greater interdependency as the basis for a functional, open system of governance and inclusive economic growth.
Failure to take advantage of these opportunities in a timely and equitable fashion — and failure to ensure all sectors of the economy feel the benefits of reforms — will result in frustration that fuels the discontent of many of Myanmar’s citizens.
The window of opportunity for great things remains open in Myanmar. But just how long it remains open is yet to be seen.
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