Myanmar in a Regional Context


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When: Sep 28 2015 - 11:00am until Sep 29 2015 (All day)
Where: The Cosmos Club (2121 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008)

The East-West Center in Washington in collaboration with the US-Korea Institute and the Southeast Asia Studies Myanmar in a Regional ContextProgram at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), hosted a conference entitled Myanmar in a Regional Context in Washington, DC, at the Cosmos Club on September 28-29, 2015. The purpose of this conference, consisting of one half-day and one full-day sessions, was to examine the Myanmar policies of various Asia Pacific regional countries and the effects of this interaction on the internal policies of Myanmar.

The conference opened on September 28th with introductory remarks from Dr. Charles Morrison, President of the East-West Center and Dr. Peter Lewis, Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS. They were followed by an off-the-record lucheon keynote address from H.E. Derek Mitchell, the US Ambassador to Myanmar. The first panel of the day centered on congressional views of Myanmar, with off-the-record remarks from staff members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US House Committee on Ways and Means, Senate Committee on Appropriations, Senate Armed Services Committee, and Congressman Joseph Crowley's office. 

The second panel, Myanmar's Approach to External Diplomatic and Economic Relations, brought views from Burmese experts to the fore on how they saw their home country's regional presence evolving. Dr. Zaw Oo, a Senior Research Fellow and Director of Research in the Centre for Economic and Social Development in the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, focused on Myanmar's recent economic reforms and its future economic trajectory. During its ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, Myanmar was able to push further regional economic integration measures through including a unified exchange rate and greater transparency among ASEAN member countries, particularly in regards to resource extractions. Domestically, Myanmar's Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Thilawa and Dawei were moving forward with help from Japan and Thailand, while the SEZ in Kyaukphyu had stalled due to tensions with China over a stalled gas pipeline project. Myanmar had also successfully set a minimum wage for the first time in 60 years.

Dr. Chaw Chaw Sein, Chair of Yangon University's International Relations Department, focused her remarks on Myanmar and its evolving relationships with the two Koreas. She pointed to Myanmar's renewed policy of engaging with Western countries such as South Korea rather than further deepening ties with North Korea as a central factor in why Myanmar will no longer be as high of a regional concern. For example, Myanmar's focus on domestic issues has led to it not sending high level visits to North Korea while at the same time continuing to strengthen its economic ties with South Korea. South Korea has to date spent over $2 billion in development projects in Myanmar and both countries recently celebrated 40 years of bilateral ties. 

Win Min, a Senior Research Associate at Vahu Development Institute, highlighted the relations that Myanmar has built up with various regional partners since it opened up in 2011. Following its opening up and the controversy of the now defunct Myitsone Dam project, Myanmar has been moving away from China given its hestiation to continue to overrely on China as a benefactor. Today it enjoys stronger relations with Japan and its fellow ASEAN members, as well as European partners such as Norway. Though these interactions are largely economic in nature, that could change as Myanmar continues to grow and becomes more of an economic and strategic power in its own right. 

September 29th was a full day of panels, focusing on the views of regional experts in various Asia Pacific countries with stakes, both political and financial, in Myanmar. The first panel investigated US views of Myanmar. David Steinberg, a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins SAIS, pointed out that interest within the United States regarding Myanmar continues to be focused within a relatively small group who had adopted Myanmar as a cause under the banner of Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result, the average American's understanding of Myanmar is miniscule and that of the US government is likewise outdated and often biased. Keith Luse, the Executive Director of the National Committee on North Korea, echoed Mr. Steinberg's sentiments. He stated that the US government and Congress in particular continues to see Myanmar as a non central part of US foreign policy and simply reacts to what is going on there rather than planning ahead. As a result, he believed that the United States is sending a signal to Myanmar and other Asian nations that the region continues to not be a priority in US foreign policy. 

Bradley Babson, a consultant, explored the various regional sources of Official Development Assistance (ODA) into Myanmar. Seven out of ten of the largest investors in Myanmar are its fellow Asian countries while the United States continues to have a very small footprint. This has largely been due to constraints placed on US investments by the current sanctions regime against Myanmar and the willingness of many Asian countries to do business in less structured environments, with China being the prime example. Japan alone counts for over 60% of the ODA in Myanmar, with Australia following close behind. However, there are concerns that this current investment is helping to prop up the same elite that has dominated Myanmar's business interests for decades. As Myanmar continues to open up there is hope that more investments from the West will follow and with that will come other reforms. 

With this future in mind, Peter Kuick, a Principal at the Inle Advisory Group, further elaborated on the hesitancy of US business to invest in Myanmar. One cannot solely blame the sanctions for the slow trickle of US businesses into Myanmar. Rather, issues concerning the ease of doing business as well as the risks of working in such an underdeveloped market also have a part to play. US businesses also will pay close attention to the results of the upcoming election in November, which if it goes smoothly will help to ease some concerns. But Mr. Kuick warned that the biggest missed opportunity is the fact that US businesses are not already on the ground to help and move Myanmar in a positive direction. 

 The second panel of the day covered a wide range of opinions from 3 regional players: Thailand, India, and Japan. Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, praised the increasingly positive relations that Myanmar now enjoys with neighboring Thailand. Though there had previously been animostiy between the two countries over Thailand's support of minorities in Myanmar, Thailand has been instrumental in the peace process negotiations that the current Burmese government has been engaged in with ethnic groups. Regarding its relations with ASEAN more generally, Mr. Chongkittavorn expressed admiration for Myanmar's handling of its chairmanship, which it had had over a decade to plan for since it joined the regional body. As a result, it was able to push for promotions of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and allow ASEAN to have a greater role in the fight against Ebola. Myanmar has also become a game-changer with its concrete development plan and its populations' mastery of English. 

Dr. K. Yhome, a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in India, discussed how Myanmar has become an increasingly important strategic partner for India. Cross-border cooperation, particularly in regards to security, now stands at the forefront. In order to help Myanmar retain its stability, which it views as central to maintaining the regional power balance, India has been deepening its defense cooperation with Myanmar to build up its capacity. The Bay of Bengal has also become a central issue in the India-Myanmar bilateral relationship as Myanmar has become a critical link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans at the same time as China has been seeking to expand its own influence in that maritime region. Security by no means defines this bilateral relationship however. India sees Myanmar as a potential source for energy and supply connectivity, though it has been waylaid in its own investment acitivities in Myanmar due to a lack of transparency. 

Iwata Yasushi, Director for Asia and the Pacific in METI's Trade Policy Bureau, stated that as it opens up Myanmar's importance as an area of economic development to Japan will only grow. Myanmar has a great potential for economic development due to its huge population, geopolitical importance, and abundant resources, both natural and human. Japan believes that Myanmar is the key for future economic development in the Mekong region. For this to occur, more infrastructure development is needed in Myanmar (roads, deep water ports, etc.) and current foreign direct investment (FDI) has been largely focused in extractive industries. Mr. Iwata also stated that Myanmar could learn from Thailand which has a leading industrial power could benefit by providing training to its neighbors including Myanmar. 

Dr. Narushige Michishita, a Japan Scholar in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Asia Program, in turn focused his remarks on Japan's security cooperation initiatives with Myanmar. In addition to participating in high-level security discussions with Myanmar and other ASEAN countries, Japan has engaged in providing Myanmar with the means to train its military including hosting Burmese military students at its defense college. There are even plans to eventually send retired Japanese military personnel to Myanmar to teach on the ground. However, Japan needs to maintain strong ties with Myanmar since its own improving ties with Myanmar have not resulted in a downgrade in Myanmar's relations with China. Rather, Myanmar is continuing to hedge by keeping its relations with Japan, China, and India all relatively equal.

The third panel turned to views from South Korean experts. Dr. Chul Chung, Vice President of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy's Department of Asia-Pacific, stated that South Korea sees Myanmar as a potential strategic economic partner. Currently South Korea is at a disadvantage in Myanmar as it competes with other Asian countries such as China and Japan for investment opportunities. In order to continue building its trade relationship with Myanmar, South Korea must find its niche, which could likely take the form of technical assistance and linking Myanmar into its production supply chains in a similar way to Vietnam, which enjoys a strong trade relationship with South Korea. 

H.E. Dr. Suh Sang-Mok, a Special Advisor to the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), broke down the methods behind South Korea's ODA to Myanmar. From 1991 to 2014, South Korea has provided $75 million worth of ODA to Myanmar to support its liberalization efforts in the hopes of establishing a Korean model of development in the country. Areas of priority include: agriculture and rural development, industrial and human resources base building, and technical and vocational education. KOICA was also instrumental in the formation of the Myanmar Development Institute (MDI), established by Presidents Lee Myung-bak of South Korea and Thien Sein of Myanmar to serve as a think tank to analyze development policy and train government officials. Along these lines, Myanmar was also recently designated a priority partner country for South Korea, with the hope that continued partnership will eventually allow it to be a model for a North Korean transition. 

 Dr. Lim Wonhyuk, a Professor in the Korea Development Institute (KDI)'s School of Public Policy and Management, elaborated on KDI's goals for MDI. KDI's focus is to build capacity development programs for training for permanent secretary offices, senior leadership, and regional-level leadership programs. To that end, in 2004 the Korean Ministry of Finance launched a knowledge sharing program made up of two components: a "Wikipedia" of Korea's policy experiences for online consultation and a customized consultation component that matches experts with experts to develop peer learning. 

The final panel of the day highlighted Chinese views of Myanmar. Yun Sun, a Senior Associate in the Stimson Center's East Asia Program, centered her remarks on how China has sought to improve its image in Myanmar following the controversy surrounding its Myitsone Dam project. Though never publicly admitting any wrongdoing, Chinese companies are being encouraged to improve their image and diversify their investments from the traditional government players in Myanmar. In turn, Myanmar has been working to mitigate its own controversies with China surrounding their shared border which China sees as integral to preserving the security of its proposed new "Silk Road." Compared to other players in Myanmar, China believes that no matter how the elections turn out its interests in Myanmar will not be greatly challenged, leaving it free to pursue connections to the Bay of Bengal via Myanmar. 

Dr. Xiong Jie, a member of China's Central Party School, expounded on China's various investment challenges and projects in Myanmar. Many Chinese businesses are waiting to see if investment policies in Myanmar will be affected by the upcoming elections. There has also been a shift in how Chinese businesses conduct themselves on the ground in the wake of protests by Burmese citizens over what they see as a lack of transparency. Now Chinese businesses are working to compact this issue in two ways: building institutions to allow them to respond to citizens' demands, or pre-control, and providing compensation after protests begin, or post-control. Localized operation and management of Chinese companies has also been encouraged to cooperate more effectively with Burmese civil society as the new "Silk Road" takes shape. Infrastructure investments on Maday Island increased support for Chinese investment overall and a proposed gas pipeline with Myanmar, India, and South Korea as partners is expected to gain more traction as time goes on. 

 For images from the conference, please visit the album for this event on the East-West Center's Flickr page. 

Primary Contact Info:
Name: Sarah Wang
Phone: 202-327-9755