United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar last week highlights how much has changed over the past two years in the relationship between the world’s lone superpower and a country that has been one of the world’s most inwardly focused. But even in this moment of mutual success, the US and Myanmar should be wary of the potential for disappointed expectations to combine with autarkic (self-isolating) and xenophobic trends in Myanmar’s political culture and create a backlash.
Long-term economic and social mismanagement in Myanmar means that the US-led developed world offers an idealised model, as well as an idealised pathway for Myanmar to reach that model. The US and its allies are societies that many in Myanmar aspire to become more like, and it is through trade, investment, technology transfer and knowledge sharing that this hoped-for transformation in Myanmar will occur. But the political and economic systems of the developed world are not a panacea for the many social and economic ills that trouble Myanmar.
When it becomes apparent that re-engagement with developed world capitalism will not only fail to solve existing problems but also creates new ones, seemingly discredited ideas from Myanmar’s past may once again become important.
In Myanmar, expectations for the reforms and concomitant re-engagement with the developed world are unrealistically high. These include expectations for economic growth, and for how that growth will affect material and social conditions. Emblematic of this sentiment is President U Thein Sein’s call for Myanmar to triple its per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) by 2016. This would require growth of more than 25 percent a year, a rate that would be little short of miraculous.
Such unrealistic expectations can also be seen in the spirit underlying the electricity protests over the summer. The abysmal state of the electricity grid in Myanmar is not something that can be fixed simply by the will of the government to do so and it also cannot be fixed overnight. But the sudden break from long isolation and the breakneck pace of political opening make even the miraculous seem possible, if not probable.
High expectations also cluster around improvements that Western companies will bring to business practices in Myanmar. The hope is that the contrast with what noted Mandalay writer, Daw Ludu Amar, has called the lawpan khit, or “era of the Chinese boss”, will be stark. Myanmar’s reliance on China for imports of finished goods, infrastructure development and energy investment has brought to the fore resentment about how Chinese businesses operate in the country.