Asia-Pacific Profile: Myint Swe


Photo credit: Taro Taylor; Creative Commons


Who is Myint Swe?

Born June 24, 1961, Myint Swe is a retired general and one of two newly-inaugurated Vice Presidents of Myanmar. His resume includes posts as the head of the military security department in the previous government (intelligence body) and more recently the chief minister of the Yangon region. In 2012, he was nominated to replace a Vice President who was against reforms, but was never confirmed for reasons that are disputed .

Why is he a newsmaker?

On March 30, Myanmar’s new civilian president, Htin Kyaw was sworn in along with his two Vice Presidents and 18 Cabinet Ministers, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Myint is in the news particularly because he is also a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe. He took part in the crackdown of student protests last year and Buddhist monks in 2007. After his nomination was announced this month, social media websites became sites of significant criticism, citing the military’s continued influence over the country.

Because he has a son-in-law with Australian citizenship, there were questions originally surrounding his eligibility for the role. The constitution, written by the military, bans top government officials who have foreign relatives.

How does Myint Swe’s position impact Myanmar’s new government?

The military is still heavily entrenched in Myanmar’s political and economic systems. While the Parliament is dominated by Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the military has a right to nominate a Vice President. The military maintains sufficient veto power as it is also guaranteed three ministries (Border Affairs, Home and Defense) and control a quarter of parliamentary seats.

New President Htin Kyaw, hand-picked by Suu Kyi, will lead Myanmar’s first civilian government after 54 years of military rule. Suu Kyi will meanwhile take on important portfolios in the ministries of education, foreign affairs, electric power and energy and the president’s office. Land confiscation, national reconciliation and a transition to a more open economy are just a few issues that the new government aims to tackle. The public has welcomed new government with open arms, and has high hopes for its civilian leadership. Leaders affiliated with the previous regime will have to adapt if the country is to move forward economically and politically.

How does Myint Swe impact US policy toward Myanmar?

The U.S. Government has welcomed reforms to Myanmar’s political and economic systems. Yet as a feature of the old regime, Myint Swe remains on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist that prevents U.S. companies from doing business with certain businessmen and senior military figures. The military’s grip on power also still enables its control over release of political prisoners, a critical issue for relations with the U.S. to improve. At this stage, the U.S. State Department has not appeared to indicate whether Myint Swe’s role in the government would affect diplomatic relations.


Myanmar’s Way Forward: Land, Labor and Capital Reforms

While economic reforms in Myanmar arrived more slowly than political reforms, foreign governments and investors are nipping at the government’s heals to gain access to the newest market in Asia. However, the Myanmar government must consider the implications of a more liberalized economy for the wellbeing of its vulnerable population.  Political reforms were necessary in order to gain legitimacy from the international community, stimulate foreign investment and have sanctions eased or removed.  Myanmar’s recent transformation from an almost pariah state that relied heavily on China’s financial support and backing in international arenas such as the United Nations to a state that the US now sees as a pet project for a democratic, market movement has affected more than the top government officials, military brass and opposition leaders.  Economic, labor and land reform will significantly alter processes of production and consumption in Myanmar given the country’s reliance on agriculture, lack of infrastructure and new foreign influences.   

Since military rule began in 1962, Myanmar (then Burma) has become one of the most impoverished and closed states in Asia.  Myanmar has had historical economic ties with several of its neighbors. But, to enable a wider field of influence and investment the government has begun implementing reforms on foreign investment. They have set the goal of reducing state control over education, energy, forestry, health care, finance and telecommunications sectors.

Over the past year, Myanmar has experienced an economic and political reemergence, with only (and it’s a big only) ethnic violence and abuses by the army in several regions still plaguing the government.  Additionally, strides have been made in correcting the problem of forced labor in Myanmar, leading to removal of trade barriers by the European Union.  The EU also reinstated the Generalised System of Preferences halted in 1997 due to national labor standards.  Over the summer American companies were allowed to start investing in the country. In step with President Obama’s visit to the region, the US government just last week began allowing the importation of products made in Myanmar excluding jadeite and rubies.  The removal of Western sanctions and continuous visits by business delegations to Myanmar over the past year gave Naypyidaw a renewed spirit toward achieving economic security.

Land reform in Myanmar will, according to Center for Strategic and International Studies Deputy Director Murray Hiebert “determine the role of farmers in the country’s reform process and lay the foundation for new realities between the government and the rural poor.” (2012)  With more than two-thirds of the population relying directly or indirectly on agriculture, how the government handles new legal frameworks (through Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Land Management Law) will either give confidence to locals or to foreign investors seeking security for land use.  Currently the government of Myanmar is the “ultimate owner of all land,” and so is able to dictate land usage.  During military rule, the state confiscated land with meager or no compensation to farmers; new laws may now facilitate this expulsion of farmers and those who rely on subsistence agriculture, creating a landless working class simultaneously privatizing land and creating an easily exploitable labor force.

The US and other Western states see Myanmar as a country they can help build and shape in their image, while taking advantage of both lack of domestic private competition and the presence of government officials with ties to industries.  With foreign funding, new industry in Myanmar will create new consumers as well as producers.  The way people in Myanmar produce and exchange goods will change; and some industries will no longer be competitive due to cheaper imports and foreign-owned factories.  If Myanmar’s majority rural population is driven away from rural areas and subsistence agriculture, then it is likely that they will have to quickly convert to other sectors, for example, manufacturing textiles and finished goods.  We are yet to see if Myanmar will find a niche in particular industries.

The inability to freely sell precious gems, purchase weapons and halt the opium trade still haunt the leaders of Myanmar during the reform process.  Furthermore, human rights violations by the military, ethnic clashes and minority rights and concerns continue to hamper economic advancement.  Before Myanmar can become a fledgling capitalist economy – or even a controlled capitalist economy like several of its neighbors – there will likely be a protracted period of painful reforms.  The privatization of land and resources is not likely to be any more equitable than it has been under military rule over the past five decades. In their public appearance on November 19 in Rangoon, US President Barack Obama and Myanmar President Thein Sein warned against lingering in the past; rather, “We need to look forward to the future.” Hopefully the people of Myanmar will be able to define their own sense of progress and avoid some of the problems faced by their neighbors and eager business partners.   

Myanmar on the Precipice: How Suu Kyi & the NLD May Learn from History

Protest on March 24, 2012 by members of the International Foundation for Burma National Congress (IFBNC), outside The White House. Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson.

Myanmar’s April 1 by-elections are over, but tensions and uncertainty still hover – will the National Democratic League elected officials be able to maintain their seats within Parliament for the remaining term without military interruption?  Will the new government be able to effectively pass progressive reforms despite the military grip on power? How will the celebrity of Aung San Suu Kyi impact the party’s effectiveness and foster an environment for a fair democracy? All these questions and more are swirling around the media, academia, and importantly are in the minds of the Burmese. The relatively smooth elections on April 1 were a positive sign despite corruption allegations. The next three years until the general election may seem like a decade if reforms move at a staggered pace.  Lessons can be learned from Myanmar’s rich history, including its struggles with democracy, civil war and involvement of outside powers. 

The transitions of power between democracy and coups from the 1940s to 1980s demonstrate the perplexities in Burma/Myanmar politics and the ways that individuals and parties have tried to cling to power. In the early 1940s Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, attempted to lead an ‘independent’ Burma free from British rule, Aung San and his colleagues courted the Japanese; they spent months training and fighting with Japanese soldiers and even wore kimonos during their flirtation with Fascism.  Aung San wrote “There shall be one nation, one state, one party, one leader…there shall be no nonsense of individualism.  Everyone must submit to the state which is supreme over the individual.” (Thant, 2006, p. 229)  The slogan of the Burma National Army in 1943 while he was War Minister still reigns today – “One Blood, One Voice, One Command”.   Luckily Aung San turned against Fascism just in time in 1946 to help Burma in its first democratic elections; however, he always held onto his belief in statism and the determination that his party’s views were best for the country.  When Aung San negotiated with the Japanese and the British to enable an independent Burma, he demanded that his party automatically receive a majority in the provisional government council, with more rights than other parties and in disregard of ethnic minorities. In a way, Aung San eventually led the U Nu government to democratic power through the 1947 Constitution.

Burma has yet to achieve sustained democracy; greed, corruption, military strength and politicians that feel they’re infallible have impeded its perpetuity.  By the late 1950’s, Independent Burma’s first elected government under Prime Minister U Nu experienced a decline in influence.  After ten years in power and in spite of electoral success, U Nu’s party began to break apart.  The league had been a mixed grouping of competing interests, goals and loyalties, sealed by relationships at the very top. (Thant, 2006, p. 283) The friends and colleagues in government grew tired of each other and mutual confidence began to wane.  The league lost much of its support and started to rely on extremist wings for continued support in Parliament, causing worry among the military.  In September 1958, rumors of a coup d’état circulated; eventually forces under command of future NLD leaders surrounded the government buildings as a “preemptive coup”; several days later U Nu announced that he had asked General Ne Win to assume a “Caretaker Government” due to the current security status of the country, until new elections could be held.

The Caretaker Government that lasted until 1960, stabilized the country reducing crime and making some inroads regarding ongoing ethnic conflict. (Thant, 2006, p. 284) However, when time came for the next national election, the military leaders failed to win over the public, and U Nu’s former government easily regained power.  General Ne Win projected an unconcerned image publicly to the media, but his military “believed they had acquitted themselves admirably and could run the country better than anyone else. They wanted another chance, this time without any electoral deadline looming overhead.” (Thant, 2006, p. 285)

General Ne Win took over Burma with a military order for the second time in 1962; the ruling party had helped the country move forward and could not understand why the military-backed party didn’t gain the people’s trust for another term.  The first military government used technocrats to rule effectively; the new military government, however, worked in an opposite way, distrusting and firing educated civil servants, academics, and others within the educated professional class.  The government abolished many foreign aid agencies, international education exchanges, and closed Burma to the outside world.  The effects of decades of inefficiencies, military rule and the path toward a totalitarian state by General Ne Win from the 1960’s to 1988 can still be seen and felt across the country.  Rather than turning Burma into a national-socialist utopia, Ne Win turned it into one of the poorest and least developed countries in the region.  Now with a civilian leader in charge – but strongly backed by the old ruling military order – the country may yet fall back into disarray come next election.  A major difference this time, however, is that the world is watching and advocating for democratic normalcy and greater freedom, with its ASEAN neighbors and the US noting every step. 

When Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1987 to take care of her mother, she also prepared herself for potentially having to nurse the country back to health.  A strong and determined leader, she has claimed her place in history but is just getting started.  Suu Kyi’s discussions with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations delegations and other diplomats demonstrate the faith and authority that the international community has in her opinion and commitment to a free Burma.  It is amazing that Suu Kyi has made it this far despite assassination attempts, but the current leadership knows that they need to keep her placated to survive.  Prior to the election, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in Foreign Affairs that Thein Sein would actually be at a loss if Suu Kyi did not win her parliamentary seat; the international community and Burmese would not accept the election results as being accurate.  In this way, one hopes Suu Kyi is in fact fostering a more genuine democratic spirit amongst military leaders.

Suu Kyi has changed Myanmar’s fate, but can she continue to move the country forward? As much as Suu Kyi is the focus of the changing political landscape in the country, her party lacks enough parliamentary seats, internal experts and policies recommendations to peacefully develop the country; as well, they need to foster more leaders to counter the stubbornness Suu Kyi shares with her late father. Furthermore, a collaborative effort will be necessary to make the economic and political changes necessary to restore a collective national pride and governmental legitimacy.  The NLD will need to keep its relations with the ruling government amiable in the same way that Thein Sein, the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military need a peaceful environment with the NLD to maintain their status.  All sides will have to compromise in one way or another to keep ASEAN on its side. 

The April 13 visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron to Myanmar is a striking sign that the West is interested in Myanmar’s development; that he decided to take a business group to investigate leaves me on edge that the country’s natural resources or economic market could potentially be ruthlessly exploited.  The bilateral and multilateral meetings to come in the next few months should provide greater insight into how things will develop in Myanmar.  The more unfiltered information sent out to the international press and the more access foreign press and nonprofits are able to gain within the country, the better.  The international community no longer seeks to alienate the government of Myanmar but they must not let the state reign ‘supreme over individuals’.

Aung San Suu Kyi, like her father, has found herself at an important precipice in Myanmar’s politics. The fragile balance that has emerged out of the most recent elections could point toward a more stable and more prosperous future for Myanmar’s people, but also looms at the edge of renewed military rule. The hope is that Suu Kyi and that NLD can navigate this situation without repeating mistakes of the past.

*Note: this post uses the name “Burma” to refer to the time before the country was renamed “Myanmar”. The people of Myanmar are referred to as “Burmese”.

Reference: Thant, Mynt-U (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps: A personal history of Burma. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, NY.

Clinton’s Travel to Myanmar Leaves Little Room for Controversy

Albeit on short public notice, Secretary of State Clinton’s quick trip to Burma/Myanmar was highly anticipated in policy circles. Commentators asked what would she accomplish, why should she go, and what did she achieve? Overall, many of us reached similar conclusions:

• Clinton’s trip was timely given the policy ‘turn’ toward the Asia-Pacific;

• It signified a positive boost for President Thein Sein’s actions toward reforms;

• There is need for greater and unique engagement;

• Three key issues remain unresolved – release of all political prisoners, violence among different ethnic groups, and uncertain relations between Myanmar and North Korea.

More than just to provide counter to China, the US seeks to make a lasting impact in Myanmar’s political situation. In one of her statements, Secretary Clinton said that “the United States wants to be a partner with Burma” and “we want to see this country take its rightful place in the world.” Furthermore, the US wants to assist Myanmar “to build the capacity of the government”.

Officially, the US policy is “principled engagement and direct dialogue as part of” a “dual-track approach”. The call for a “new conditional normalization” by CFR scholar Joshua Kurlantzick is premature. Kurlantzick writes:

Working with other industrialized democracies, the United States should be prepared to provide a large new aid package, upgrade relations, push for Myanmar’s reentry into global organizations, and potentially end sanctions—if, in return, Myanmar continues to move toward holding free elections, ending its insurgencies, and demonstrating real transparency about its weapons programs.

The goal of “conditional normalization” is to “prevent instability…stop Myanmar’s development of nuclear programs; and help promote democratization”. This policy turn would be a stark difference to past public declarations and policies, and however noble it is too early for implementation.

One would like to think that the situation in Myanmar is unique, and with just a bit of prodding the country can turn into a fledgling democracy with a vibrant export-driven economy. For all its intricacies and potential, however, it was not long ago that Buddhist monks were being imprisoned or killed for protesting, Aung San Suu Kyi was under perpetual house arrest, and other severe human rights abuses were going unrecognized by the international community (through lack of official UN resolutions or condemnations). The civil society sectors to which Clinton pledged funding have been few and far between or historically corrupt (due to channeling of money to the government first). A positive pathway for engagement to improve the level of human development is through the Lower Mekong Initiative, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the US; Clinton invited Myanmar to the program, and if nothing else it could enable better coordination for disaster relief and climate-related issues.

ASEAN, People of Burma, UN, US – Everyone wants a bit of Burma

Tensions in the South China Sea, China’s currency, American troops in Australia and opening markets have all been significant news stories over the course of the APEC, ASEAN and EAS meetings. Amidst these events one evolving story could have a unique impact on bilateral and multilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific. Over the weekend in Bali, US President Barack Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Burma. Set for the first week of December, Clinton’s trip will be the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 50 years. The recent announcements in favor of engagement with Burma led to a flurry of events and discussions which will hopefully ultimately signal a more open and peaceful Burma.

Since becoming the first civilian president of Burma in fifty years in March 2011, President Thein Sein steadily proceeded with national democratic reforms and attempted to gain greater legitimacy among members of the international community. The current leadership of Burma (now Myanmar) understands the importance of domestic and international legitimacy, especially given the events of the Arab Spring and global Occupy movements. By releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from home detention, allowing the National League for Democracy to participate in elections, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, attempting peace with ethnic groups and seeking to host ASEAN in 2014, the Burmese government has garnered potential conditional support of the US government, United Nations and ASEAN members. President Thein Sein was seen smiling and answering to reporters over the weekend, a sign he’s getting the hang of being less guarded and more open.

It is possible that President Thein Sein and his government’s recent concessions including halting work on an unpopular dam and passing a law that enables workers the right to strike were pursued to maintain power and prevent massive civil unrest. The situation in Burma, including the human rights abuses that occurred, failed to reach the agenda of the UN Security Council due to China’s veto and its respect for state sovereignty. Now, however, times are changing and UN leader Ban Ki-Moon welcomed “just as ASEAN did, the recent developments in the country under the leadership of President Thein Sein”. Given the “flickers of progress” in Burma the goal of Secretary Clinton’s trip will be “to test what the true intentions are, and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform”.

Developing a more hospitable domestic environment and international relations will be critical to improving human development indicators, lifting Burmese out of poverty and creating a safer East Asia. At one point Burma’s isolationism was akin to North Korea’s, and there were even worries about sales or transfers of weapons and what that might mean for the region. As a former ‘problem’ child for ASEAN, Burma appears to be shedding its incessant cling to Chinese leadership and influence; now that President Thein Sein and the government has been given a confidence boost, the next few months should provide a useful path for improvement; in particular the international community will closely watch the December by-elections and the role that the NLD is able to play.