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The United States earlier this month moved to restore full diplomatic relations with Myanmar, a decision prompted by the sweeping political and economic changes enacted by the new civilian government, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and a cease-fire with ethnic rebels.
Anthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation is encouraged by the recent developments, although he remains uncertain about the path of progress moving forward.
“Based on a recent trip, it is clear that the desire for change amongst a significant group within the elite is real," Saich said. "However, they recognize that the future challenges that lie are significant and the outcome is by no means predictable. The upgrading of diplomatic relations is important in that it will provide the US with a much stronger platform to have a say in the trajectory of future developments and to help maintain the dialogue between the regime and the opposition.”
We asked Saich to provide additional perspective on the changes in Myanmar.
Q What has prompted the recent political changes in the country?
Saich: Clearly, the most important factor is the change of President and it is clear that a group of reformers around him have concluded that for the country to carry on in the same old vein would lead to not just further immiseration of the general population but also less wealth to be divided among the elite. However, no progress could be made without accommodation with the opposition. The initial speed has taken most observers by surprise. Yet, the outcome is by no means certain and many among the elite if not opposing reforms are waiting to see what happens. There is a danger of unrealistic expectations being created that cannot be met.
Q How will the reopening of diplomatic relations with the United States affect Myanmar's political progress?
Saich: Of course, it is hard to predict but it will provide reformers with potential support. It will start a process of opening up more sources of advice and resources for reformers to draw on. The US will have to be careful to show an even-handed approach in its dealings with the regime and the opposition. Too close relations with the opposition may create a backlash among the old elite. For the US it provides the opportunity to be an important part of the debate and a player in the reform process.
Q Could Myanmar become an important ally for the U.S. in that part of the world and if so, why?
Saich: That is hard to say, as Myanmar will have to retain good relations with India, Thailand and China. China is a major investor and will remain influential. This will cause Myanmar to move carefully and it may well prefer to use the US as a counter to Chinese influence rather than entering into any kind of alliance or formal partnership.
Saich led a team of Ash Center faculty and staff who visited Myanmar in December 2011. The group produced a paper based on their research, “Appraising the Post-Sanctions Prospects for Myanmar’s Economy: Choosing the Right Path” (pdf), which provides a blueprint for economic policy moving forward.
The research is part of a larger, ongoing effort by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation to provide an academic assessment of Myanmar’s economic development exploring possible development strategies.
Anthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
"The upgrading of diplomatic relations is important in that it will provide the US with a much stronger platform to have a say in the trajectory of future developments and to help maintain the dialogue between the regime and the opposition," said Saich.