When he arrives in Myanmar next week, President Barack Obama will mark a historic occasion. Not only will it be the first time a sitting American president has visited the country, the trip also represents the final step in Myanmar's remarkable rehabilitation from international pariah status. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made a point of ignoring the previous leaders of Myanmar (then known as Burma), almost all of whom were blacklisted from entering the United States. In 2005, the Bush administration began calling the country an "outpost of tyranny," while Bush's wife, the first lady, made change in Burma one of the highest-profile issues on her personal agenda.
Since then, Myanmar has come in from the cold. During Obama's visit, part of a longer Southeast Asia swing that kicks off in Thailand on Sunday, the president will almost certainly praise the rapid and pervasive reforms that have supposedly transformed the country in two short years. Indeed, just the fact that the president is traveling to Myanmar, administration officials say, shows how impressed Obama is with the pace of change, and particularly with the reformist instincts of Myanmar president Thein Sein, a former army general who has worked with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to usher in a wave of political, economic, and social change.
And Obama is hardly Thein Sein's only admirer. Nearly every other industrialized democracy that once imposed sanctions on Myanmar because of its harsh military rule and massive rights abuses -- the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Japan, to name a few -- have dropped those sanctions in the past two years. Instead, many of these countries are allocating large new aid packages to Myanmar and encouraging their companies to invest there. Earlier this month, the World Bank, which had shunned Myanmar after the country refused to pay its loans and pushed out most foreign NGOs during the 1960s and 1970s, authorized a landmark new aid package worth $245 million. In meetings with Norwegian officials in Washington, I learned that Norway, which has always had a close interest in Myanmar, plans to make the country its top priority for aid over the next five years.
Many other Western nations have opened new aid agencies in Yangon, the country's largest city and its former capital, and NGOs have returned en masse. Some Burmese experts went as far as backing Thein Sein for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, likening him to a latter-day version of F.W. deKlerk, though the prize ultimately went to the European Union. Still, Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, listed President Thein Sein among the five frontrunners for the Nobel in recognition of his efforts "spearheading a gradually evolving peace process in the country." Thein Sein's prospects for claiming the prestigious prize next year look equally strong.
The entire landscape in Myanmar seems to be changing overnight -- not only on the political scene. Sensing an opportunity in Yangon, companies have swamped the sprawling, low-lying city with foreign investment. Japanese manufacturer Suzuki has launched plans to build a series of large new motorcycle factories; Coca-Cola is projected to invest $100 million in Myanmar over the next three years, with rival PepsiCo looking to follow suit; and, Visa, Mastercard, and numerous other Western and Japanese financial firms have announced plans to increase their presence in the country. Meanwhile, nearly every major oil and gas company in the world descended on a petroleum trade show in Myanmar last spring, to scout out opportunities in what might well be one of the world's biggest new oil and gas finds. Earlier this year, officials from the Myanmar Energy Ministry announced that the country has proven oil reserves of almost 140 million barrels and 11.4 trillion cubic feet of gas, potentially putting it on par with some of the largest petroleum producers in the world.
But Myanmar's political and economic changes, though substantial, are not as secure as many Burmese reformers and outside observers think. The economic reforms that have been put in place are tenuous, and if they do not lead to broad-based growth, they could only fuel greater unrest. Civil wars still rage in parts of the country, and the end of the authoritarian era seems to have unleashed dormant ethnic tensions in places like Arakan State in the west. Meanwhile, though the former senior generals really do seem to have retired, that does not mean the army has simply vanished from power.
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Without a doubt, Myanmar has come a long way since late 2010, when the country held rigged elections that, at the time, few Burmese activists or outside observers thought would bring any real change. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted those polls since they were viewed as simply a way for the military to create a falsely civilianized parliament and continue to rule from behind the scenes. When the polls were announced, Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, as she had for decades. In the election, 25 percent of the seats in parliament were reserved for the uniformed armed forces, and nearly all the rest were won by army-backed parties consisting of officers who had simply shed their uniforms. Nearly every leading democracy, including several in Southeast Asia, condemned the polls as unfree and unfair. Myanmar looked like it would remain encased in amber, as it had been, with brief exceptions, since the army first took power in 1962. Things looked equally bleak for Suu Kyi, who remained locked up -- a symbol on the global stage, but aging and increasingly marginalized at home.