Here in Myanmar (Burma), where political change has been numbingly slow for a half-century, a new leadership is trying to embrace rapid transition from within. The government has freed political prisoners, held elections (with more on the way), begun economic reform, and is intensively courting foreign investment.
Understandably, the international community, which has long punished Myanmar’s authoritarian regime with sanctions, remains cautious. Reforms are being introduced so fast that even renowned experts on the country are uncertain about what to make of them.
But it is clear to me that this moment in Myanmar’s history represents a real opportunity for permanent change – an opportunity that the international community must not miss. It is time for the world to move the agenda for Myanmar forward, not just by offering assistance, but by removing the sanctions that have now become an impediment to the country’s transformation.
So far, that transformation, initiated following legislative elections in November 2010, has been breathtaking. With the military, which had held exclusive power from 1962, retaining some 25% of the seats, there were fears that the election would be a façade. But the government that emerged has turned out to reflect fundamental concerns of Myanmar’s citizens far better than was anticipated.
Under the leadership of the new president, Thein Sein, the authorities have responded to calls for a political and economic opening. Progress has been made on peace agreements with ethnic-minority insurgents – conflicts rooted in the divide-and-rule strategy of colonialism, which the country’s post-independence rulers maintained for more than six decades. The Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not only released from house arrest, but is now campaigning hard for a parliamentary seat in April’s by-elections.
On the economic front, unprecedented transparency has been introduced into the budgetary process. Expenditures on health care and education have been doubled, albeit from a low base. Licensing restrictions in a number of key areas have been loosened. The government has even committed itself to moving towards unifying its complicated exchange-rate system.