[Viewpoint] The view from Burma

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[Viewpoint] The view from Burma

I spent the week of Aug. 20 in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma (officially called Myanmar by the government). My purpose was to assess the sincerity of the new government of President Thein Sein about democratization and also to hear directly from representatives of the democratic opposition and the ethnic minorities about their situation. I also took every opportunity to ask how the major stakeholders in the country viewed the roles of South Korea, Japan, China and India. My CSIS colleagues and I will do a report about our visit to Burma in mid-September, but in this column I wanted to convey to readers what I learned about perceptions of Korea.

Burma is a beautiful nation of about 55 million people strategically situated at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. The nation’s security situation is complicated by the presence of over 100 ethnic minorities, a dozen of which have been in conflict with the government, and by the looming existence of ancient rivals China, India and Thailand on its long borders. Burma is truly a shrimp among whales, as Korean readers would appreciate. The economy of Burma is a wreck, despite the fact that the nation was viewed as the “rice bowl” of Asia and more economically advanced than the Republic of Korea in the 1950s.

Some blame the economic problems on Western sanctions, but it is quite clear that the real source of economic suffering is gross mismanagement of the economy and wasteful redirection of resources. One need only travel to the massive new capital of Naypyidaw, built at an estimated $5 billion, to understand the skewed priorities of a military regime that ranked at the very bottom in global rankings of spending on health and education.

It was clear to me that the new government of President Thein Sein is sincere about attempting to move toward democratization. He has welcomed democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom we also met, into the Parliament as an elected representative. He has also purged anti-reformers from his cabinet, removed the crudest forms of press censorship and released political prisoners, with the likelihood that more will be released in the weeks ahead as he prepares for his international debut at the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September.

At the same time, the reformers face considerable uncertainty and headwinds going forward. Burma’s new Constitution reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and a supreme council that Thein Sein does not fully control has the right to redeclare martial law at any time. The economy is still largely in the hands of former military cronies who will resist transparency and accountability and who continue stealing land and displacing villagers in the ethnic minority areas.

North Korea was also a frequent topic of conversation. The former government of Than Shwe had an active arms trade with Pyongyang in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and worked closely with the North to dig tunnels in Burma and explore (if not develop) nuclear capabilities. The consistent message in Naypyidaw was that the new government has no interest in such illicit or military relationships with Pyongyang, even though diplomatic relations will continue. That sounded genuine, but it is not clear how successful the current government has been in severing existing military relationships with Pyongyang. The U.S. ambassador to Burma has recently noted that the North Korea angle is still a concern.

The government and some of the economic planners spoke very highly of the South Korean example of democratization. The most immediate geographic and historical model for them is Indonesia, which successfully moved from a military junta to democratization just over a decade ago. But there was also keen awareness that Korea had earlier made this transition and rose to the heights of international respect and influence as a result. To some extent the jealousy among Association of Southeast Asian Nations members makes an external Asian example such as Korea highly attractive to the military and the democratic opposition in Burma. The biggest problem in the democratic transition we heard from every quarter - government, democratic opposition and civil society - was the lack of capacity. Simply put, many in the country do not know what democracy really is, how the Parliament is really supposed to work and what the role of civil society should be. It would be an invaluable contribution for Korea to increase assistance in governance and democratic institution building.

In contrast to the positive views of Korean democratization, it was disappointing to hear consistent complaints about the role of Korean private companies in Burma. Civil society groups and journalists described Korean companies as weak in corporate social responsibility - comparing them unfavorably with Chinese and Thai firms, rather than with companies from other OECD countries. It was difficult to determine whether the indictment of Korean companies was based on reality or hearsay, but either way it is a troubling development in terms of Korea’s national brand. Democratization in Burma faces many challenges, but it does seem likely that the press, NGOs and Parliament will increasingly serve as “watchdogs” on the government. Korean companies may have become too used to dealing with the old regime and will not want to be on the wrong side of these new actors.

Overall, Korea has the opportunity to “punch above its weight” in Southeast Asia. The history of Southeast Asia’s relations with Korea is not as complicated as it is with Japan, the United States, China or Europe. It will be important, however, for Korean business and government leaders to think through exactly how they will engage with a Burma that is in the midst of potentially historic transformation.

* The author is a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green
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