Southeast Asia

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Myanmar Reforms Tarnished by Communal Violence



Myanmar has made huge strides in its political and economic reforms, but it still has a long way to go as communal violence continues to tarnish this remarkable transition.



In March of 2011, Myanmar’s ruling military dictatorship was dissolved in favor of a nominally civilian government.  Under the prior Military regime, Myanmar was a pariah state in the region and the United States maintained strict economic sanctions.  Now that the country has made important political transformations, US leaders have pushed to remove sanctions and encourage investment in the now democratic nation.  In late September, US lawmakers lifted the heaviest of the economic sanctions, allowing US companies to move in.  In the first week of October, President Obama signed a bill to facilitate foreign investment in Myanmar and to give the US a greater influence in shaping Myanmar’s reforms.  Later, in November, the United States lifted the import ban that had remained in place.  This move lightened restrictions on products that can be imported into the US, but it also lengthened the list of Myanmar entities with which US companies cannot associate.  Myanmar has great promise for international investors, who seek to profit from the nation’s abundant resources and fledgling economy.  Myanmar’s president signed a new foreign investment law that encourages foreign investment through tax breaks and other methods.


The World Bank and International Monetary Fund began working with Myanmar shortly after the US lifted sanctions. In October, World Bank leaders began negotiations to relieve some of the debt which Myanmar has accumulated.  Additionally, they commended Myanmar for the recent reforms, but said that there is still much to be done.  The bulk of economic reforms have impacted only the highest segments of Myanmar society, while the majority remains in poverty.


Myanmar has experienced violence on two fronts. In Northern Kachin State, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military continue to clash.  Roughly 70,000 Kachin residents have been displaced, and dozens have been killed.  Refugees face major hardships and lack all but the basics to survive in crowded camps.  KIA leaders want autonomy for the region to maintain self-determination and to preserve the local language.  Myanmar leaders attempted peace talks, which broke down in March.  A seventeen-year cease fire ended with the talks.  The military has been accused of human rights violations, including torture, rape, and forced labor of the displaced Kachin residents.


The second conflict began in June of this year, when violence broke out between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.  Since the conflict erupted, over 100,000 Rohingyas have been displaced, and 180 have been killed on both sides.  Both sides have also burned thousands of homes.  Rohingya Muslims have been emigrating from Bangladesh, and neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh considers them citizens.  Human rights organizations are having difficulty meeting the needs of all these refugees.


The US and other states are putting pressure on the new democratic regime to make efforts to solve the crises, but so far Myanmar’s government has done little.  President Obama plans to visit Myanmar as part of his tour of Southeast Asia where he intends to pressure the government to act.  While US military leaders have met with their counterparts in Myanmar, the US is still reluctant to make military ties with Myanmar until they address these communal crises.



[+] Opening Myanmar to US and other investors provides opportunities for international companies to expand in the region.  Given time, these businesses may establish manufacturing facilities, creating jobs for impoverished citizens of Myanmar.


[+] If Myanmar’s military can halt the human rights violations, the US might more easily form military ties with a major neighbor of India and China. Gaining another friend in the region will strengthen the US’s position, and could put more pressure on China.


[-] Continued violence will hinder the humanitarian effort in Myanmar.  If Myanmar’s government does not move to stop violence in Rakhine state, problems could spill over into Bangladesh as Rohingya Muslims flee.  This could cost many more lives, creating an even greater humanitarian crisis.


Previous Analysis October 2012 >> Political and Military Flexing in the South China Sea



Previous Analysis August 2012 >> China Asserts Its Control Over the South China Sea



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