By Murray Hiebert & Phuong Nguyen —
Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the United States on September 13-14 as state counselor and de facto leader of Myanmar will be one of the highlights in U.S.-Myanmar relations since the two countries normalized diplomatic ties in 2012, after the military began political reforms. Now that a democratically elected government has taken office, the next five years will allow the two countries to lay the foundation for a new chapter in their bilateral relations.
Aung San Suu Kyi, having won a popular mandate to govern, faces a monumental task after five decades of repressive military rule and mismanagement. Large swathes of Myanmar’s population expect her government to fix every problem facing the country, from a crumbling infrastructure to near-daily electricity blackouts.
Less than six months since the National League for Democracy (NLD) took office, some critics charge the government with not moving fast enough to address the challenges facing the country. Meanwhile, national-level priorities—establishing peace with ethnic armed groups, developing new economic policies, addressing communal tension between Buddhists and Muslims, and managing Myanmar’s complex relations with neighboring China—will continue to compete for Aung San Suu Kyi’s attention.
Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has a historic opportunity to lay the groundwork for Myanmar’s still embryonic economy to begin to take off, and position Myanmar in regional geopolitics in ways befitting its size and geography. This is where the United States can join as a valued partner of Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Myanmar.
Now is the time for U.S. officials to think about the trajectory of U.S. engagement with Myanmar for the long term. When the generals embarked on political changes in 2011, they were not “launching” reforms, as was often portrayed in the western media; they were at the finishing end of their self-designed, so-called roadmap to democracy for Myanmar. When the NLD won overwhelmingly at the polls last November, few in Washington took for granted that the military would allow a peaceful power transfer. But it did. The military has since continued to demonstrate its willingness to allow the democratic transition to proceed, so long as its autonomy and interests are taken into account.
As a starter, Washington and Naypyitaw should establish an annual dialogue to serve as a mechanism for senior-level engagement between the two countries on bilateral political-security issues and larger strategic topics. Many current Myanmar government officials are part of the country’s “missing middle,” the generation that came of age during the years of military rule and had little exposure to the outside world. By having an institutionalized channel for high-level dialogue, Washington would gain an important opportunity to boost mutual understanding between officials from both sides and get to know Myanmar’s rising leaders early on.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which played a critical role in Myanmar in the lead-up to the 2015 elections, should be empowered further and allocated the resources needed to assist Myanmar’s economic policymaking and development. The agency has launched projects in rural Myanmar to introduce better agricultural technologies and financing to small-scale farmers, a vital effort in a land-rich country where 70 percent of the population works in agriculture. The U.S. government should scale up this endeavor with the long-term goal of helping Myanmar revive its once-thriving agricultural sector.
USAID is also well positioned to work with the current government to help refine its recently released economic vision. The central economic challenge facing Aung San Suu Kyi lies in whether she can put in place the right ingredients for a market economy to take off over the coming decades.
The United States should consider opening a program in Myanmar akin to the hugely successful U.S. Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Vietnam, which the U.S. government launched in the 1990s to educate mid-level Vietnamese officials on the functioning of a market-oriented economic system.
Likewise, U.S. government agencies should continue to expand technical aid for Myanmar in trade and investment regulations, advancing legal reforms, and building an independent judiciary. The U.S. government should work alongside Aung San Suu Kyi to find practical ways to unwind remaining U.S. economic sanctions against Myanmar and make it easier for U.S. companies to do business in the country. While there are political reasons in the near term for retaining sanctions on cronies and companies on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Persons (SDN) list, Washington should take specific steps to ensure U.S. companies are able to use the key physical and business infrastructure (ports, airports, banks, trade-related services) necessary for their operations without fear of being audited or violating U.S. laws. The U.S. government should also work to set realistic benchmarks that would make it possible for Myanmar businesspersons on the SDN list who have reformed their business and social practices to graduate from the sanctions list.
In addition, granting Myanmar access to the Generalized System of Preferences program could lead to investment in light industry and promote continued labor reforms.
Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be more supportive of U.S. engagement with Myanmar’s military than she was in the past. The state counselor earlier this year gave a green light to a U.S. proposal to conduct more structured courses under the U.S. Expanded International Military Training program, often dubbed E-IMET, that aim to foster understanding of and respect for the principle of civilian control of the military. Under the previous government, Washington began limited engagement with the military by conducting workshops with Myanmar officers on issues concerning rule of law and human rights.
Aung San Suu Kyi seems to understand that as long as she holds a decisive say on the pace and scope of the military’s cooperation with Washington, this engagement serves to boost the long-term professionalization of the military, strengthen her position with the generals, and offer Myanmar added strategic leverage in dealing with China.
The U.S. military is considering beginning a small, customized English-language training program for the Myanmar military. This initiative, if it materializes, could help promote a culture of reform within Myanmar’s armed forces and give its future leaders important tools to play a greater role down the road in areas such as peacekeeping and regional security forums.
Aung San Suu Kyi can use her visit to Washington to communicate her latest thinking to members of the U.S. Congress, some of whom still believe Washington has moved too quickly to normalize its engagement with Naypyitaw and could risk losing important leverage to press for additional reforms in the future, particularly with the military.
Lastly, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership provides Washington with an unprecedented opportunity to buttress its engagement with an important country in Southeast Asia, the United States has an interest in seeing the democratic progress achieved in recent years transcend the current government and take a firm hold in Myanmar. A more delicate subject, but one that U.S. diplomats might want to gradually broach with Aung San Suu Kyi, will be the imperative for leadership renewal within the NLD and her vision for making a vibrant, long-lasting democracy in Myanmar a reality.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. Ms. Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.
Parts of this post have been adapted from the upcoming CSIS report Myanmar’s New Dawn: Opportunities for Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S.-Myanmar Relations, to be released in September 2016.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.