CREDIT: Devin Stewart, Carnegie Council
CREDIT: Devin Stewart, Carnegie Council

Mindsets May Hinder Progress in Myanmar

Jun 5, 2013

The opening of Myanmar holds much promise for the country's people. Its political change has also excited Western liberals and foreign investors alike, as demonstrated by this week's World Economic Forum meeting in the country's capital, Naypyidaw. With political liberalization comes new economic openness. It's said among jetsetters these days that if you don't have a Myanmar stamp in your passport, you're nobody.

Here's a country whose move toward democracy is personified by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi; a country whose ties with China have been close but ripe for change; a country whose press freedoms are already more advanced than those of other Asian nations; a country whose large population, natural resources, and geostrategic importance give it regional influence. But in international affairs, change is never smooth. Things always become complicated.

Recent press coverage has highlighted Myanmar's multitude of political, economic, and social challenges. About a quarter of Myanmar's population lives below the poverty line. Its healthcare system ranks among the worst in the world. The country is perceived to be one of the world's most corrupt. Its social and physical infrastructures are in shambles due to decades of isolation and neglect, and religious violence between Muslims and the Buddhist majority threaten to derail its fragile democratization process.

A manifestation of Myanmar's challenges showed itself this week to the 900 international delegates, hailing from 50 countries, at the World Economic Forum meeting: No cash ATMs, no credit card usage, and no 3G network would be available to the visitors. But as any businessperson knows, needs and wants are business opportunities. Myanmar's needs—from fertilizer to telephony—present a fresh market for the world's entrepreneurs.

But less discussed are the mindsets that underlie these challenges that have emerged in interviews I have conducted in Myanmar and elsewhere in the region over the past few years.

First, the expectations regarding Myanmar in the minds of investors, the people of Myanmar (also known as Burma), and everyone else must be managed. The people of Myanmar risk becoming frustrated by the lack of progress in the face of its challenges. In the economy alone, it will take years for investment levels in the country to catch up to expectations. Similarly, the Burmese must moderate their own beliefs about what foreign investment is capable of achieving. While some local businesses realize that foreigners will bring fierce competition, many Burmese believe that American brands like General Electric, Coca-Cola, and Google, will work miracles in Myanmar.

For its part, the world community also must understand that change will take time in Myanmar. As some companies are discovering, setting up shop in Myanmar—from getting licenses to setting up IT—is extremely difficult, and some businesses have quickly given up. Meanwhile, the country's religious strife between Buddhists and Muslims has alarmed human rights groups. Human Rights Watch cited "ethnic cleansing" and "crimes against humanity" against Muslim Rohingya after religious violence spread from the Arakan State last year. Scrutiny of Myanmar's progress is fine, but if expectations aren't managed, it could lead to dashed hopes and resentment.

Second, people and organizations must adjust to their new roles in a changed Burmese society. The military was in control of the government for decades, conferring its special access to business deals, for example with Chinese state-owned enterprises. Although Myanmar is now ruled by a "quasi-civilian government," the military is not going to disappear; it is still adjusting to its new role, and the spread of religious violence has conveniently extended its relevance as the guarantor of security. The apparent complicity of the police during and after recent religious riots has convinced many of some degree of official sanction.

Others in Burmese society must adjust as well. The nascent democratization of the country has unleashed special interests and new demands. The central government has been overwhelmed with local disputes and requests from newly free citizens. On a related note, the country's newly free speech has created a rumor mill filled with gossip, paranoia, and conspiracy. Finally, citizens will need to adjust to a shift toward rule of law and away from military rule. If these attitudes change in the right direction, the country will avoid the potential path of "increased spheres of corruption," as some officials in Asia have speculated about Myanmar's possible future.

Finally, and most concerning, is just how mainstream anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar appears to be. Armed Buddhist mobs roam towns, burning down mosques, schools, and shops across the country in retaliation for rumors of violence or disrespect. The violence is spreading with recent incidents in Lashio following similar ones in Meiktila, Bago, and Oakkan. Weak police response and a suspicion of government or military complicity follow the attacks.

What is shocking to the West is that many of the Theravada Buddhist majority feel that they, not the Muslim Rohingya, are the victims. Even the country's democratic progressives, such as Ko Ko Gyi, refuse to acknowledge Rohingya Muslims as an ethnic group. Aung San Suu Kyi's spokesman has done the same, denying their existence, although Daw Suu has condemned the unusual two-child policy against Muslims in some townships.

The arguments against the Rohingya Muslims echo those of the right wing in Europe against North African immigrants: "They don't respect our laws;" "they have their own schools," "they are overrunning our unique culture." The difference is that in Europe, such views are fringe while in Myanmar they are more the norm. The likely result is that religious violence will continue, the military's presence in society will be maintained, and a democratic, peaceful society will become harder to reach.

None of these challenges need to be permanent. Mindsets can change—through education, time, dialogue, and exposure to new ideas. Moreover, despite Myanmar's incredible challenges, the optimism there is palpable. Many conversations I had in Yangon ended on an upbeat note about the future given the vast improvements the country has seen in just two years. No one believes the country will turn back to isolation but the road ahead will be difficult. As the country addresses its formidable challenges, it must consider the mindsets, beliefs, and attitudes that may delay progress.

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