Insights and Analysis

Optimism High, But Challenges Remain for Burma’s Future

September 26, 2012

By John J. Brandon

Given the decades-long political stasis in Burma (also known as Myanmar), the changes introduced under President Thein Sein have been nothing short of remarkable. Over the past 18 months, President Thein Sein has released thousands of political prisoners, established a national human rights commission, and introduced new rights for workers.

Burma, 2012

Optimism about the future prospects for Burma is high and widespread, but challenges remain, including lack of capacity and human resource development. Photo by Geoffrey Hiller.

He has also allowed peaceful demonstrations, suspended the controversial Myitsone Dam project, commenced ceasefires with minority armies (the Kachin being an exception), worked with the IMF to regulate its foreign exchange rate, is welcoming back exiles, and has removed more than 2,000 names off its “Black List,” including dissidents from the “8888” generation, foreign journalists, and noted figures such as Bono and Madeleine Albright. In the past month, prior press censorship has been officially abolished, and private newspapers are now allowed to publish daily for the first time in half a century.

A year ago, no one would have predicted that Nobel laureate and democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent the better part of two decades under house arrest, would be elected to the national parliament and be allowed to visit the United States and receive the Congressional Gold Medal in a riveting ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Aung San Suu Kyi has stated publicly that the annulled 1990 elections were “history” and in Washington last week said that long-standing economic sanctions against Burma should be lifted. These are significant compromises by Aung San Suu Kyi and the party she leads, the National League of Democracy.

On August 29, President Thein Sein further reshuffled his cabinet in an effort to promote more pro-reform ministers and to sideline military hardliners. The cabinet reshuffle replaced ministers responsible for Information, National Planning and Economic Development, Finance, Industry, and Railway – all significant and powerful positions. These ministries’ authority has been transferred directly to the president’s office to oversee the running of the economy. Many of the newly-appointed ministers in the reshuffle are former academics, businessmen, and technocrats, rather than soldiers, in an effort to promote greater professionalism, effectiveness, and public confidence. The reshuffling comes at a crucial time when the parliament and President Thein Sein are trying to agree on legislation amid continued uncertainty over planned amendments to a foreign investment law, and debates in parliament on a labor law (that will seek to establish a minimum wage), a land reform law, and how best to address sectarian violence in Rakhine state.

All of these changes have led to greater international acceptance and recognition for the government. The Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced last November that Burma will serve as ASEAN chair in 2014. In December 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma and had meetings with both Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. In June, the U.S. upgraded its diplomatic relations with Burma by appointing Derek Mitchell as its first ambassador there in 22 years. Throughout 2012, the U.S. has “suspended” most economic sanctions and will likely lift remaining sanctions as recommended by Aung San Suu Kyi to U.S. Congressional leaders and policymakers.

Optimism about the future prospects for the country is high and widespread, but continuing uncertainties remain. Despite the country’s being rich in natural resources, foreign investment that is needed to create jobs has yet to materialize, and the government is under great pressure to improve the quality of life of Burma’s people. Foreign donors are coming. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has recently opened an office in Rangoon, and the United Kingdom and Australia are doubling their assistance, but there is a need for effective donor coordination.

Burma suffers from a tremendous lack of capacity and human resource development. The road ahead will be arduous. Poor education and healthcare systems, rampant corruption, a lack of transparency, bureaucratic and legal incompetence, and high inflation are just a handful of challenges the country faces. Burma’s transition will likely be from the top-down, and political development will likely be uneven and face numerous challenges going forward. Much will hinge on the nation’s ability to garner foreign investment that will create jobs.

For the past 50 years, despite the nation’s significant potential, Burma’s people have suffered greatly under successive autocratic and incompetent governments, but nonetheless have shown a remarkable resilience to endure. Hopefully, political and economic reforms, predicated on principles of good governance and rule of law, where citizens can voice their needs and aspirations, will allow Burma to prosper and thrive in the coming decades. The people of Burma deserve no less.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


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