The recent push for democratization in the once-isolated state of Myanmar has been seen as a puzzle to Western observers, many of whom question the timing and rationale towards this unexpected, but progressive move. Amidst the recent push towards liberal democracy after 50 years of rule by the Military Junta, multinationals and foreign capital have flowed into Yangon as companies scurry to take a piece of the Burmese pie, no longer subject to harsh sanctions by most Western nations. In addition to democratization and the encouragement international investment, current President Thein Sein – who belongs to the pro-Junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – has also signalled his willingness to allow pluralist debate following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, a prominent dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner. As Myanmar continues its efforts toward democracy, the questions arises as to what exactly its rationale is in cooperating with Western states, and why now?
Before attempting to answer this question, it should be noted that the push for liberal democracy in recent months in Myanmar has been successful, but only to a certain degree. In most respects, Myanmar still remains largely undemocratic, as best exemplified by the fact the pro-Junta USDP still retains an overwhelming majority in the national legislature, despite gains by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Furthermore, problems remain over issues of corruption relating, for example, to the recent influx of foreign capital, censorship, and the lingering concerns over human rights among the nation’s embittered ethnic minorities in conflict with the government in their strive for separation.
Coming back to the question, Myanmar’s progressive move comes at an interesting period in the history of nations in East Asia. As many Western states look to the East for cheap manufacturing, the potential Myanmar sees to ride this investment train likely is the strongest impetus for democratization and the establishment of the of law in Yangon. Or perhaps Myanmar’s opportunistic progression is driven by the West’s growing discontent over trade with China, with foreign companies predicting that the growing trade deficit and the artificially lowered RMB will lead to conflict with the U.S. Recently, Myanmar’s central bank has announced that it will weaken its newly floated currency in a bid to attract foreign investment, while also taking IMF advice to modernize its financial sectors. Moreover, the onset of modernization in Myanmar and the country’s financial integration into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can only sweeten the deal for Yangon, who is looking to end its relative diplomatic isolation from its future East Asian partners. The reality is that Myanmar remains largely an undiscovered playing field, a new frontier for businesses looking for an alternative to China.
Apart from the changing economic realities of the region as a driving force for Myanmar’s push toward democracy, another possibility may be the effect of sanctions in promoting policy change. Unbeknownst to some, the sanctions employed by Western states, particularly the U.S., have crippled the ability of Myanmar to trade with other states who use currencies other than the dollar, since most business in Southeast Asia is done with the dollar. The effect of not using U.S dollars in trading with neighboring states, especially Thailand, may have resulted in Yangon’s further isolation. Thus, the push for democracy in Myanmar indeed may not simply have been a case of altruistic consent by hardliners, but rather a calculated move best summarised by the idea that if you can’t beat them, and the conditions are right, trade with them.
– Cody Levine