Celebrating A New Myanmar

I always see Myanmar as one of the most exciting country in the world. This country has colorful formative years, a mostly disastrous Socialist era, iron-fisted military dictatorship era following the failed 8888 Revolution, and this era where a civilian – albeit an ex-general – took the presidency and effectively the government to good effect. Myanmar has gone through a long, winding, and often bloody path. Today, they have found a light at the end of the tunnel. They are now one of the best-performing countries in ASEAN, bearing in mind the fact that it has only been three years since the reforms started. Indeed, the World Bank has declared that Myanmar is truly an emerging country. This would not be possible without the dawn of a new era in Myanmar.

A New Era

A new fresh air of democracy and openness was brought upon Myanmar with the dawn of a civilian government. This start has proven to be a beacon of hope for the Burmese. Economy is flourishing in an unprecedented manner with its citizens engaged in a more privatised and mostly free economy. The direct benefits of the strengthening Myanmar macro-economy is a healthy economy growth of 7,8% in 2014 alone. Furthermore, in terms of GDP per capita, an enormous growth can be seen in the last 10 years. In a relatively short time, Myanmar has gone from $194 in 2004 to a respectable $1700 in 2014. If there is a lingering doubt on whether reform in Myanmar had brought progress, the aforementioned numbers are surely positive indications.

During my diplomatic internship at Indonesian embassy in Yangon, I have personally witnessed the rapid growth of Myanmar’s first capital: how offices and apartments are developing rapidly, and how the streets are full with cars. These are sure signs of a growing economy. It is also interesting to note the rising house and apartment prices in Yangon, with more and more people seek ways to make business and live in Yangon – and Myanmar in general– as they see it as one of the most promising place to do business in South East Asia.

As far as economy goes, we should not forget how blessed Myanmar is with abundant natural resources. With a relatively small size – more or less the size of Kalimantan – Myanmar possesses a large reserve of natural gas, which amounts to 11,8 trillion cubic feet, according to the Myanmar Ministry of Energy. It also has a huge reserve of oil which amounts to 3.2 billion barrels. Knowing this, China has been engaged in a lot of gas piping projects in Myanmar for a long time, and currently India is also investing heavily in Myanmar’s infrastructure in what can be perceived as an attempt to be closer to Myanmar. Apart from the large amount of fossil fuel reserves, Myanmar also holds one of the world’s biggest reserves of precious gemstones such as ruby, sapphire and jade which contributed a substantial amount of the GDP. Unfortunately, official figures are difficult to come by due to the opaque mining industry which still enables smuggling to Thailand, China and Bangladesh. My occasional trips to Bogyoke Market in Downtown Yangon has provided a glimpse on how low the prices of those stones are, arguably more than anywhere else in the world.

Myanmar truly is a wealthy country with huge economic potentials to be an economic powerhouse in South East Asia, should it be managed properly.

That being said, we can get a sense that Myanmar has similarities with Indonesia. Both are countries bestowed with rich natural resources and strategic geographic locations. Myanmar is notably located between two Asian giants, India and China. In terms of geopolitics, as they face the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean, Myanmar has the potentials to play a strong and influential role in either ASEAN or South Asian affairs.

I personally see a great opportunity for Myanmar in the future to set their own active foreign policy and help shape the architecture of the region.

Nevertheless, there are still several challenges for Myanmar to solve. Apart from the occasional skirmishes with Kachin armed rebels, the Rohingya question still lingers. Indeed, despite international pressure the government has not changed their stance of not amending the 1982 Citizenship Law, which does not recognize the Rohingyas as one of Myanmar’s official ethnicity. This issue has grown from a domestic ordeal to a region-wide problem because thousands of Rohingyas are fleeing to Australia in search of better lives and to avoid persecution.

Consequently, a number of ASEAN countries such as Thailand and Malaysia have become either a temporary or permanent transit for them, which in time will burden respective governments. I believe this issue is one of the earliest tests for the new Myanmar government’s resolve for reform. Moreover, they will mostly do it alone without too much assistance from other ASEAN countries owing to the non-interference nature of ASEAN.

Future relations with Indonesia

Indonesia has had a long and cordial relationship with Myanmar for nearly 65 years, dating back to 27 December 1949. And now, along with Myanmar’s economic and political reforms, Indonesia can support them more actively in multiple aspects by promoting both government-to-government cooperation and people-to-people contact. By having a democratically healthy and economically sound Myanmar as a partner, it will reap not only considerable benefits for Indonesia, but also for ASEAN as a whole for it will bring about an incentive for a smoother ASEAN integration in 2015 and beyond.

President Joko Widodo has also met President U Thein Sein before attending the ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw in November 2014. The meeting showed strengthened resolve for both countries to work closer. Later in a less-formal event with the Indonesian citizens in Myanmar, President Jokowi also reiterated that Indonesians should make a “pre-emptive strike” on Myanmar’s market because it is still largely untapped and the potential for our investments are just exhaustive.

The newly- reinvigorated Myanmar has truly proven itself to be a cause for celebration. And it is only natural for Indonesia to join in the party. As the date of the diplomatic relations commemoration is fast approaching, it is high time for us to put Myanmar into perspective: to realise that they are going forward, to realise that they have every element to be successful, and also to realise that some challenges still lay ahead for this emerging democracy.

I believe that Indonesia can always set a credible and friendly example as we walk alongside Myanmar in the region.

However, we should remember that there is still homework to do especially on the issue of Rohingya in Rakhine State. In this regard, Indonesia needs to continue as Myanmar’s partner in resolving this issue. Indeed, Indonesia has shown strong commitment in supporting the conflict resolution in Rakhine, for example through the construction of 4 schools with a total value of US$ 1 million. This will hopefully allow the Rohingyas to attain better education in hope for a better-educated society which will have a more open perspective to the concept of living mutually in peace despite any apparent differences. Hopefully, this will help pave the way to a sustainable reconciliation.

Ultimately, Myanmar is too good an opportunity to miss, and too formidable a country to underestimate. Indonesia must play an active part in boosting the development and overseeing the ongoing reform progress of Myanmar; not for our own good, but for the good of ASEAN, and ultimately the whole region.


Written by Aldamayo Panadjam Panjaitan

The writer works for the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Views are his own.

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