Such a pretext is not hard to find in an ethnically diverse country where conflict remains rife. Already, many Burmese believe that the army is meddling in events in the southwest of the country, helping to stoke anger and violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State. The violence there has lasted for months now, destroying tens of thousands of homes and leaving hundreds dead. At the same time, regional commanders have used the crisis to argue for a greater deployment of forces in Arakan State. Troops now patrol many of the larger towns in Arakan, an ominous sign in a country where, in the past, the army was accused of summary executions, forced labor, rape as a weapon of war, and other atrocities when it inserted itself into ethnic conflicts.
There are also reasons to think Thein Sein may be less of a reformer than we think. Liberal record aside, the president remains highly indebted to the army, which operates in the shadows behind him. Many Burmese officials wonder whether Thein Sein even has total control of regional military commanders operating on the ground across the country. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi has misstepped time and again, finding it difficult to make the transition from activist to politician, served by a staff with little training in the basics of policy-making. Burmese businesspeople in Yangon say that Suu Kyi and her party have little grasp of economic policy-making, and even less of a handle on how to enact policies that would ensure long-term foreign investment and protect investors from the types of nationalizations that have crippled Myanmar in the past. Suu Kyi also seems to have become far more reticent to speak out on rights issues as she has become an active politician. She has done almost nothing to try and heal the rifts in Arakan State or Kachin State, earning severe criticism from many rights activists around the world, as well as from Muslims in Arakan State itself. With Suu Kyi refusing to take a strong public stand, aggressive and xenophobic Buddhist groups across the country have taken control of the conversation about the Arakan crisis, and prevented many aid organizations from even operating in there. Hard-liners have also kept the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which wanted to play a mediating role, from even opening an office in Myanmar. Last week, Doctors without Borders reported that Buddhist radical groups were preventing many of its physicians from working in Arakan State, even though many of the fleeing refugees are suffering from acute malnutrition and malaria.
Thein Sein's economic reforms also hardly guarantee that Myanmar will enjoy growth that actually benefits most people. The majority of investment, at least initially, is coming in the oil and gas sector, hardly known for its transparency or for broadly benefiting large numbers of locals. Though some manufacturing and textile firms, of the kind that have powered broad-based growth in countries like Bangladesh or Indonesia, might be attracted to Myanmar's low labor costs, the poor infrastructure will most likely keep the majority of companies away. These weaknesses could put transport costs in Myanmar on the level of the most expensive places in Africa, as well as contributing to corruption: In its latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Myanmar the second most corrupt nation in the world.
Higher-tech firms will also likely shy away from investment in Myanmar because of the country's low levels of education. For two decades the former military regime shuttered the finest secondary schools to prevent students from gathering for protests, so even though the country has a young labor force, its skill level is on par with the poorest countries in Africa. Today there are only a handful of well-educated young people skilled in information technology, communications, or management, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Myanmar.
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Given all these problems, it may be too soon to crown Myanmar a reform triumph. Certainly, the United States and other leading democracies should support Thein Sein and Suu Kyi's reform efforts, help address the refugee crises in Kachin State and Arakan State, among other places. They should also slowly increase aid and investment, especially in infrastructure -- many Burmese economists fear that the country cannot even absorb investment that quickly, since it has such little capacity.
But the White House is moving much faster. It is restoring military-military ties with Myanmar, despite the history of atrocities and the possibility that the army may be involved in stirring up the violence in Arakan State. It is pushing forward with closer diplomatic cooperation, and increasingly is trying to involve Myanmar in its broader Asia-Pacific strategy, known as the "pivot" to the region. For administration officials, Myanmar provides an opportunity to secure another partner in a region where many countries, worried by China's growing maritime power and unpredictable moves in areas like the South China Sea, are already turning to the United States as a hedge against Chinese ambitions.
Of course, as sanctions have been lifted, the administration also now is coming under increasing pressure from the business community, which for more than a decade said almost nothing about Myanmar for fear of being tarred by association with one of the most brutal regimes in the world. And yet, despite the photo ops and warm welcomes that will surely greet Obama -- and the fact that American engagement has helped push some reforms in Myanmar -- the White House should consider waiting to see more concrete outcomes before going ahead with significant military ties, greater aid, and lifting sanctions forever.