Peacekeeping in Myanmar: Status Quo Strategies

According to recent reports, Muslims in Myanmar are in a tragic human plight. Some reports say 650 of the nearly one million Rohingya Muslims have been killed as of June 28 in classes in the western region of Rakhine. Also, almost 1, 200 Muslims are missing and over 90,000 have been internally or externally displaced. Muslims are not considered full citizens of Myanmar according to the Constitution. The government of Myanmar refuses to recognize Rohingyas, claiming they are not natives and classifying them as illegal migrants despite the fact that they have lived in the country for generations. Muslims living in the Rakhine region of Myanmar are deprived of basic rights including education and employment. They are also subject to forced labor, extortion and other coercive measures. Clearly, this is a tragic human rights violation. Who is helping and who should help?

In the years of military rule the global community avoided ground interference and chose to use external means of pressure like economic sanctions. Much of the global community was unwilling to get directly involved due to the dangerous and instable state of the military government. However, with the rise of democracy in the country the global community is becoming more involved and willing to aid the rights of citizens and address human rights violations. However, the United Nations has still not agreed to dispatch peacekeeping forces to Myanmar.  Several Islamic states or states with a large population of Muslims have lashed out at the United Nations for keeping silent on the ongoing massacre of Muslims in the Rakhine region. Iran in particular is pressuring the United Nations to dispatch peacekeeping forces. Iran’s Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said, “Why don’t you dispatch peacekeeping forces to Myanmar to prevent the killing of Muslims as you sent peacekeepers to Syria?” Many Islamic countries are disappointed that though the United Nations sent peacekeepers to Syria, do not see Myanmar as in need of such assistance. This is likely the cause of the global community strategy of stepping back from assisting Myanmar during the military rule, and creating awareness of this tragedy again is a slow process with more publicized and larger news events like Syria and the Arab Spring.

In contrast to peacekeeping troops of the United Nations, some scholars that regional countries or the ASEAN should take the reigns on peacekeeping in Myanmar as it is a regional problem, as the ethnic conflict in the country is spilling into neighboring countries. Some suggest that the Myanmar government should invite regional troops to be stationed in conflict areas while it works to settle the disputes politically and permanently. Since this is a regional problem, neighboring countries would be more willing to dispatch troops than the United Nations. Allowing regional troops into Myanmar will show Myanmar’s new commitment to peace and ending conflict. Also, since one of the most damaging characteristics of Myanmar as a failed state is its ethnic conflict and rebel groups, with regional troops acting, the government can focus on the long term success of the political legitimacy and economic growth.

Though Myanmar has progressed well in the last few years, there is still more that can be come to help the people and support political legitimacy and effectiveness. Status quo strategies, like peacekeeping are likely to be more effective in Myanmar at this time since the democratic government is so new. There is still a lack of government legitimacy and resentment for the global community stepping back for such a long period, therefore direct intervention, trusteeship, or shared sovereignty would not likely be supported by the citizens.

The Foreign Aid Dilemma (Can there be too much, too soon?)

Since Myanmar has experienced a comparatively successful transition to democracy in just a few years, many international NGOs and aid agencies are planning to expand operations in Myanmar. However, is this really best or is it preemptive? Compared to many other failed or failing states the world is under the impression that Myanmar is one of the most promising cases and therefore a good investment. In many other failed states, “long term foreign aid—as distinct form immediate humanitarian assistance—can actually bring more harm than good” (Kraxberger 55). Is Myanmar ready to receive a large amount of aid? Do they have legitimate and effective institutions that will spend money effectively?

Though the world seems to believe in Myanmar’s success, there are eight primary challenges to using aid effectively.

  1. Peace and Internal Conflict: Without peace, there can be no development. For example, some ethnic minority groups in Myanmar are opposing proposed development projects, like improving roads and creating industrial zones. Some groups are concerned that these projects will infringe on the goal of regional autonomy by strengthening the position of the Burman majority.
  2. Political System: The type of checks-and-balances created by the 2008 Constitution have not proved successful in other countries and considering the resignation of the Constitutional Tribunal and interference of the junta, good governance will remain a difficult goal.
  3. Macroeconomic Policies: The macroeconomic characteristics like low inflation, balanced budget, and undervalued exchange rate have been beneficial in Asia, However they are hard to maintain in a multiparty political system where elected representatives tend to modify budget plans in directions that are inconsistent with fiscal soundness, as in Myanmar.
  4. Private Capital Flows: Aid from governments, both traditional donors like the United States and new donors like China and India, is constrained by budgets in a world where fiscal deficits are endemic. This means that the government will need to be effective and accountable. For example, that the CP Group in Thailand could easily invest $500 million within a year or two. Opening the door to private capital too fast and too far could jeopardize the transition by upsetting vested interests, ignoring cultural sensitivities, or exacerbating corrupt behavior.
  5. Resource extraction: The extraction of major renewable resources like hydropower, palm oil, and rubber requires slowing down the rate of extraction to a sustainable pace, avoiding pressure on the exchange rate that makes nonresource exports uncompetitive, obtaining full value of the resources being extracted, and investing the value in ways that will benefit future generations, such as a sovereign wealth fund.
  6. Land Grabbing: This problem is also partially based on internal conflict and lack of government legitimacy. Unfortunately, there are few solutions. Though some possible strategies include imposing a special tax on large land holdings or reserving for traditional land users a residual interest in land acquired for development purposes.
  7. Agriculture sector development: Almost 70% of Myanmar’s population is rural and therefore dependent on agriculture. Economic progress in Myanmar is inconceivable, either in the short term or the long term, without policies and programs that raise rural incomes. So far, the few steps taken by the government in this area have fallen short.
  8. Education: The standards of educational excellence have been squandered by other problems like internal conflict, violence, and extreme poverty. Better polices and investments the education sector could yield higher returns in the long ter. Measures to encourage the return of Myanmar’s talented Diaspora could have a high impact in the short term. (Rieffell and Fox)

These challenges actually all stem from larger problems of internal conflict, violence, a lack of government legitimacy and a historical legacy of a distrust of the government and other citizens. Though there have been improvements, it is not certain that increased foreign aid would be beneficial in Myanmar or is Myanmar has truly reached a position where they could use aid effectively. It is true that money is necessary to aid Myanmar’s transition, however it is more important to have long-term consistent aid as opposed to a large influx over a short period. Once Myanmar has “its house in order” it will be more effective to increase foreign aid (Kraxberger 56).

Rieffel, Lex, and James Fox. “Too Much, Too Soon? The Dilemma of Foreign Aid to Myanmar/Burma.” Nathan Associates Inc. (March 2013)

Kraxberger, Brennan. Failed States Realities, Risks, and Responses. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Platform, n.d.

Global Responses to Myanmar

Throughout Myanmar’s military regime the country experienced sanctions from many different countries an organizations. During the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) period Myanmar was subject to sanctions by the United States, the European Union and Australia. Myanmar was also barred from receiving concessional loans from International Financial Institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank and had few official relations with Western countries. Burma had an arms embargo imposed by the U.S. since 1993 as well as travel restrictions, financial transaction controls and asset freeze on individuals and entities associated with the military regime, and import and investment bans on U.S. companies. The EU applied visa restrictions on members of the military regime, their families and allies, and also froze on overseas assets.  Australia’s sanction policy involved forbidding transactions involving the transfer of funds or payment to, by the order of, or on behalf of specified regime figures and supporters. The U.S., EU and Australia also maintain an embargo on defense exports to Myanmar. These were attempts to force the military junta out of power by not supporting the regime, restricting access to weapons that could harm citizens, and by restricting economic activity. Therefore the military junta was not seen as legitimate by most of the world. However, Myanmar suffered by not receiving economic assistance, which only increased poverty and made citizens more vulnerable to military rule. (Hill)

However in 2012 with the success of the NLD (National League of Democracy), the International Monetary Fund conducted a consultation mission and is supporting Myanmar’s efforts to modernize its exchange rate regime (Hill). Also, the ASEAN has encouraged the international community to support democracy and lift sanctions (Hill). Though Myanmar still has a long time before they will have the support of the international community and remain in a transition period. With increased international community support and the potential success of the NLD, Myanmar may be able to pursue alternative methods for resolving internal conflicts and creating a legitimate and effective government. One option, as Krasner suggests, could be shared-sovereignty. Shared-sovereignty is a “voluntary agreement between recognized national political authorities and an external actor such as another state or a regional or international organization” (70).  This type of solution would require the government to relinquish some control and would require the full commitment of another state or organization. It seems that Myanmar should be given time to try and move forward toward democracy on their own, but if progress is not made even with a democratic government and plan of action, then it may be time for another state or organization to step in. But, maybe India or China, as regional powers with interest in the area, would be able to assist Myanmar in this way.

Hill, Cameron. “Burma: Domestic Reforms and International Responses.” Parliament of Australia. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Krasner, Stephen D. “The Case for Shared Sovereignty.” Journal of Democracy 16.1 (2005): 69-84.

Myanmar and Neoliberal Policies

Starting in 1988, Myanmar experienced many different reforms to help make the shift towards a more market-oriented economy. Under SLORC after 1998 the government took measures to promote a more market-oriented economy (Tunderman 4). The focus was on promoting private sector participation in the economy, a market-based system for the allocation of resources, to encourage private investment, an to open the economy to foreign direct investment and promote exportation (Tunderman 6). The new “open door” policy signaled a shit from the previous decades of the centrally planned economics. The liberalization policies of the SLORC, or military junta government, actually did improve the average GDP growth at around 5 percent per year in the 1990s and there was an increase in international trade (Tunderman 26). Also, exports, mostly primary commodities, grew on average by more than 10 percent per year (Wilson 140). However, there was a simultaneous increase in imports. Though the World Bank did not officially work with the government of Myanmar, Myanmar followed the recommendations of the World Bank and the Washington Consensus for marketization, deregulation, and privatization (Tunderman 33).

One example of this economic liberalization period is the export-oriented garments industry. The rise of the garments industry is because cheap labor was Myanmar’s main competitive advantage and the labor-intensive nature of the garment industry offered Myanmar an opportunity to modernize the economy and get involved in the international division of labor (Tunderman 27). The garment industry brought in foreign exchange, which was needed due to the large current account deficits that existed in the 1990s. However, Myanmar’s economy experienced serious problems during the 1997 Southeast Asian economic crisis (Tunderman 28). This caused the SLORC to institute an ‘export first policy,’ in which only firms who exported were allowed to import. The garment industry also created many jobs in Myanmar and this led to an economic boom instigated by the garment industry from 1994 to 2003 (Tunderman 29).

However, in 2003 the United States enforced sanctions for Myanmar, and as the United States was a large importer of garments from Myanmar the sanctions greatly affected Myanmar’s economy (Kudo 999). The sanctions were put in place due to the wrongful imprisonment of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, some argue that the sanctions actually prevented many workers, especially women, who were associated with the economy from rising out of poverty (Tunderman 41). The garment industry did also create gender inequality due to the gendered and exploitative nature of the garment industry that was prematurely cut. Therefore the gap between men and women was further widened, and this only reinforced the social gender inequality. Unlike “The East Asian Miracle” in countries like Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, Myanmar only experienced temporary growth and increased inequality (both gender and socioeconomic inequality) due to neoliberal policies (Williams 312).

Kudo, Toshihiro. “The Impact of U.S. Sanctions on the Myanmar Garment Industry.” Asian Survey 48, no. 6 (2008): 997-1017.

Tunderman, Simon. Gendered employment in the Burmese garments industry–a gender critique of neoliberal development prescriptions for Myanmar.  (Diss. 2012.) 1-38

Wilson, T., L. Teo and M. Hori, ‘The impact of globalization on economic development in Myanmar’, in: S. Leung (ed.) Globalization and development in the Mekong economies (Cheltenham 2010) 133-151.

Williams, Glyn, Paula Meth, and Katie Willis. Geographies of Developing Areas: The Global South in a Changing World. London: Routledge, 2009.


Democratic Transition and a Need for Good Governance

Though Myanmar is considered a failing or weak state, it is also a failing state on track for improvement as can be seen by the Failed States Index. However to truly no longer be identified as a failing state Myanmar must recover from the five decades of military misrule that turned Myanmar into a poor country with an abysmal record in political, economic and social spheres (Ghoshal 117). It is true that Myanmar is currently in a state of democratic transition, starting just be the 1990 election. However, in the 1990 election the junta refused to accept Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) as the overwhelming win (Ghoshal 118). The juntas then took actions to crackdown on the NLD and isolate Aung San Suu Kyi by confining her to house arrest (Ghoshal 120). These actions prevented the progress of democratization and the possibility of good governance. The junta even moved all university campuses away form the cities to prevent mobilization against the regime. The actions of the junta only reduced the legitimacy and effectiveness of the government in Myanmar.

With pressure from the international community the military government was forced to have a referendum for a new constitution, have a set plan for democratization, and have elections by 2010. However the constitution the army decided upon banned forbade people who had any rights and privileges of a foreign citizen from holding public office, and therefore Suu Kyi was not eligible to hold public office because her late husband, Michael Aris, was a British citizen and their two sons are also British (Ghoshal 123). To present to the international community that the government was guiding democracy, the military agreed to the 2010 elections. However, the NLD boycotted these elections to ensure certain changes like reducing the influence of the army, upholding international supervision for free and fair polls, and the freeing of all political prisoners including Suu Kyi (Ghoshal 124).

Due to continued opposition, Myanmar dissolved its ruling military government on March 30, 2010 with Thein Sein as president. However in the new government’s 30-member Cabinet was dominated by former military officers who retired in order to run and only four of the appointees were strictly civilian (Ghoshal 127). Then in the 2012 elections Suu Kyi was elected to parliament because she was able to contest the election results. This gave many Burmese hopes for the future of Myanmar. However, this progress is n uneven. There are uneven political reforms, particularly in parts of the ethnic Burman heartland and in the ethnic minority states. For example, elections were suspended and postponed in areas where civil war continued like the Kachin State (Ghoshal 129). Though Myanmar is making progress to truly recover, the country needs good governance, political reconciliation between the government and the opposition, reconciliation between various ethnic groups and the government, and the support of the international community. Democracy may not equal recover, however since Myanmar is on this path it is important to have good governance, to rule well and justly (Williams 291). However, what is good governance and what does good governance look like for Myanmar. The World Bank identifies six dimensions of good governance: voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption (Williams 292). It does not seem that Myanmar has ever had a period of good governance, and much needs to change on the political, economic, and social spheres before good governance can be achieved.


Ghoshal, Baladas. “Democratic Transition in Myanmar: Challenges.” India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs 69.117 (2013): 117-33.

Williams, Glyn, Paula Meth, and Katie Willis. Geographies of Developing Areas: The Global South in a Changing World. London: Routledge, 2009.

Is Democracy Right for Myanmar?


             A common debate in the field of international studies is whether democracy is truly a solution to development problems: can democracy save a failing state? Horowitz believes that ethnically divided countries are unlikely to see democratic transitions without conflict (Nilsen 117). Some statistics even show that the probability of civil war is twice as high in countries where the largest ethnic group constitutes half the population, like Myanmar where the Bamar majority is almost 65% of the total population (Nilsen 121). The democratization process in Myanmar has been tedious and has actually resulted in more battle-related deaths. In a country where ethnic minority armies are continuously in conflict with each other and the majority, democratization has actually been shown to trigger new conflicts by opening the political arena. For example, the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State riots erupted in June and October of 2013 and several other attacks on Muslims in communal riots in the central parts o f Myanmar in March and April 2013.

The purpose of this argument is not to suggest that democratization, as a concept is not a good choice for Myanmar, but rather than without measures to reduce ethnic conflict democratization is not a viable solution to Myanmar’s failing state status. The current democratization process in Myanmar is a state-controlled and top-down affair. While there are attempts to involve ethnic groups in the process, the ethnic minority representation has been limited and mostly hand picked by regime. Although in 2003 the SPC launched a new democratization plan, tensions between ethnic groups did not decease. The plan consisted of: reconvene the National Convention, drafting a new Constitution, and endorsing it in a national referendum. This was supposed to create a platform for free and fair elections and though it provide more opportunities for people the way the Constitution that was drafted and adopted was deeply flawed and did not address the issued of minority groups. In fact some groups, like the KNU (a non-ceasefire group) who has been in conflict with the government since shortly after independence was never consulted about the new Constitution. (Nilsen 119-130)

The primary concern for why democracy may not in itself be a solution is due to a triangular conflict between the ruling elite or Tatmadaw, ethnic groups (political parties and armed groups), and the democratic opposition like the NLD (Nilsen 132). The Tatmadaw continues to ignore the government’s ceasefire orders in Kachin State, including most recently on 18 January 2013. Due to the war-torn nature of Myanmar event civil society organizations have had to work under difficult conditions, as they are restricted from working directly with political issues. As Sawyer and other scholars suggest democratization takes time and cannot be realized without substantial and sustained external support and a connection between local, regional, and federal groups (462). This remains the primary problem in Myanmar when moving forward with democratization. Without a change in ethnic conflict and tensions between ethnic groups with both internal and external efforts it is not likely that democracy will be a viable solution for development in Myanmar.

Nilsen, Marte. “Will Democracy Bring Peace to Myanmar?” International Studies Area Studies Review 16.115 (2013): 115-42.

Sawyer, Amos. “Violent Conflicts and Governance Challenges in West Africa: The Case of the Mano River Basin Area.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 42.03 (2004): 437-63.

Military Rule and Economic Growth (or a lack of growth)

A major reason why Myanmar is considered at weak or failing state today is that it was under many years of military rule since 1962 that failed to allow the economy of Myanmar to develop competitively with the rest of the world. Starting with the 26-year military dictatorship under General Ne Win Burma experienced a violent coup in 1998 that introduced the leadership of a new military regime called the State Law and Order Restoration Council. The State Law and Oder Restoration Council (SLORC) were made up of 19 military commanders. SLORC claim unprecedented prosperity due to its open-door market economy, which would allow it to attract foreign direct investment. (Maung 503)

The SLORC regime lifted martial law in 1991 and organized a national convention in 1993 to create a new constitution that was adjourned in 1996 but without a resumption date (Maung 503). Also in 1995 SLORC released opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest but without consenting to her political leadership, despite the fact that she won the 1990 election by a landslide (Maung 504). Despite these actions and the words of the SLORC assuring an open-door policy, the Burmese economy remained an inefficient command economy with a nationwide black market (Neihsial). Therefore there is a large informal sector and rampant corruption due to the trade, price, and foreign exchange control imposed by the SLORC. In fact after the legalization of border trade in 1988, 16 commodities were banned from export including teak, rice, oil, and gems (the four products with the largest foreign exchange earning power) and this list only increased in later years (Maung 505). In contrast, on the import side the state imposed more than 22 different tariff rates ranging up to 500% (Maung 505). Therefore, it is not difficult to see that Burma was economically failing for many years. There were many years the government announced astounding economic growth rates and rising employment rates, but the statistics were meddled with and the people were misinformed. This meant that for some time people were unaware of the true lack of economic growth. For more examples of misrepresented economic growth rates by the government consult the JSTOR article “Burma’s” Economic Performance under Military Rule: An Assessment” or an article by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

Due to much political turnover and misrepresentation of information by SLORC it is no wonder that people do not believe in the power of their government and why there is a lack of effectiveness and legitimacy. SLORC failed to inform the people of their true economic actions and failed to allow an official who was more or less fairly elected to take her position. Therefore establishing political legitimacy or government effectiveness even in a new regime will take much time, as will coming up poorly used economic policies of SLORC. The Brookings Institute Survey as well as the Failed State Index both view political legitimacy, economic growth and government effectiveness as vital indicators of a failed state, though these indicators are measured in different ways.


Maung, Mya. “Burma’s Economic Performance under Military Rule: An Assessment.” Asian Survey 37.6 (1997): 503-24.

Neihsial, N. “The Economic Consequences of Military Rule in Myanmar.” Institute Of Defense Studies and Analysis. Institute Of Defense Studies and Analysis, n.d.