Myanmar (formerly Burma) is an isolated country, both geographically and politically. It is separated from its neighbours to the west, north, and east by mountains and is bordered by the Indian Ocean in the south. Until the late 18th century it expanded politically, but the 19th and 20th centuries have been a period of deliberate isolation, a situation that has still continued under a military junta from 1962 to 2011. Myanmar first opened its door to the world in 1988, but only for a short and then shut it closed. . Recently Myanmar has begun open up—how much waits to be seen.

U Thant was the third secretary-general of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971. He was an avid follower of astrology and numerology and one of the most unmemorable of all the United Nations general secretaries.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Burma today is no longer a geopolitical backwater. With a population of over 50 million, and wedged between Asia's two emerging giants, China and India, the country is of vital strategic value as foreign nations scramble for its rich resources, including oil, minerals and natural gas. “ It “is also the newest economic frontier, now that most Western sanctions have been lifted because of the new government's reforms. Burma may be deeply impoverished, but it is also a place of uncommon promise located in the world's most dynamic and fastest-growing continent. "That's why what happens here is so important — not only to this region but the world," said Barack Obama in November 2012 when he became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma. "You're taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people. This is a test of whether a country can transition to a better place." [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013; November 29, 2010]

Over the years some have said the situation in Myanmar was so bad and the junta so repressive that the West should intervene militarily and oust the ruling generals. Some have said if the United States can invade Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein then why can’t it invade Myanmar to free Aung San Suu Kyi.

International organization participation: ADB, ARF, ASEAN, BIMSTEC, CP, EAS, FAO, G-77, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICRM, IDA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, IHO, ILO, IMF, IMO, Interpol, IOC, IOM, IPU, ISO (correspondent), ITU, ITUC (NGOs), NAM, OPCW (signatory), SAARC (observer), UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNWTO, UPU, WCO, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTO. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

International Disputes Involving Myanmar

Myanmar’s border regions have for decades been the scene of fighting between ethnic armies and the ruling military, conflicts that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. This fighting has affected relations with its neighbors. In 2012, Myanmar launched offensives against armed ethnic minority groups near its borders with China and Thailand.

By some counts over half of Burma's population consists of diverse ethnic groups who have substantial numbersof kin in neighboring countries; the Naf river on the border with Bangladesh serves as a smuggling and illegal transit route; Bangladesh struggles to accommodate 29,000 Rohingya, Burmese Muslim minority from Arakan State, living as refugees in Cox's Bazar; Burmese border authorities are constructing a 200 kilometers (124 mi) wire fence designed to deter illegal cross-border transit and tensions from the military build-up along border with Bangladesh in 2010; Bangladesh referred its maritime boundary claims with Burma and India to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea; Burmese forces attempting to dig in to the largely autonomous Shan State to rout local militias tied to the drug trade, prompts local residents to periodically flee into neighboring Yunnan Province in China; fencing along the India-Burma international border at Manipur's Moreh town is in progress to check illegal drug trafficking and movement of militants; 140,000 mostly Karen refugees fleeing civil strife, political upheaval and economic stagnation in Burma live in remote camps in Thailand near the border. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

See Refugees, Human Trafficking

Myanmar’s Foreign Policy

As far as dealing with international community and domestic unrest, Myanmar’s military leaders relied on a well-tested strategy: While repressing the general population and imprisoning people who opposed the regime, it tried to appease international outrage with promises to talk with the opposition. When world attention quickly shifted to new crises, the generals tightened their grip again. These days the Myanmar government seems more flexible, accommodating, accepting or criticism and opponents and willing to engage the outside world.

According to Myanmar’s The Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “A State attains some of its national objectives by adopting and implementing its domestic policies. However as it is interrelated with other states, it becomes necessary to adopt policies that would persuade other states to react favorably. To attain such objectives, a state needs to establish diplomatic relations with other states and work in concert towards joint resolutions and cooperative implementations of common issues. The conduct of such relations in a systematic and consistent manner is said to be the Foreign Policy of a State. Both domestic and Foreign Policies are intended to attain objectives of national interest. They are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. To study the Foreign Policy of a State it is necessary to observe the basic objectives of its policy or its fundamental strategy. In adopting a Foreign Policy, States usually adopt one of the following principles: a) isolationism; b) non-alignment; c) polarization. Since achieving independence, and for quite some time thereafter, Myanmar has adopted and practised an “independent”and “non-aligned”Foreign Policy. [Source: Myanmar’s The Ministry of Foreign Affairs ]

“Evolution of the objectives of this policy may be observed as follows: A) At the time of Myanmar’s independence in 1948 , the international system has an Eastern and Western bloc, between which a “Cold War” was raging. It was also the time when colonial nations were regaining their independence.These newly independent states were in favour of adopting “independent” Foreign Policies,” “independent”in the sense of being totally free of outside influence. B) For Myanmar, which wrested independence with great difficulty, only an “independent” Foreign Policy was congruent with independence. C) Concurrently with independence, Myanmar faced an internal insurgency and therefore wished to avoid a disastrous contention on its soil between the Eastern and Western blocs.Hence it wished to be non-aligned between the two great blocs. D) At the time of independence, it was essential to prioritize on economic and social reconstruction.It was declared at that time that foreign assistance , without any strings attached from both sides, will be accepted. E) As Myanmar is geographically situated between two highly populous nations, India and China, it desired to be independent and non-aligned. For the above mentioned reasons Myanmar consistently practised an Independent and non-aligned Foreign Policy.

“Beginning in 1971 Myanmar transformed its independent and non-aligned Foreign Policy to an independent and active Foreign Policy. The State Law and Order Restoration Council , by its Declaration 3/88 of 18.9.88 promulgated that it would continue to adhere to the independent and active foreign policy.In practising its Independent and Active Foreign Policy, Myanmar will not align itself with any bloc on international issues except to consistently stand on the side that is right.Myanmar also actively participates in activities for world peace; opposes war, imperialism and colonialsm; and maintains friendly relations with all countries.

“Myanmar practises the Independent and Active Foreign Policy in accordance with the following principles: 1) respect of and adherence to the principle of equality among peoples and among nations and the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence; 2) taking a non-aligned, independent and just stand in international issues; 3) maintaining friendly relations with all nations, and good-neighbourly relations with neighbouring countries; 4) continued support of, and active participation in, the United Nations and its affiliated organisations; 5) pursuance of mutually beneficial bilateral and multilateral cooperation programmes; 6) regional consultation and beneficial cooperation in regional economic and social affairs; 7) active participation in the maintenance of international peace and security and the creation of an equitable economic order and opposition to imperialism, colonialism, intervention, aggression and hegemonism; 8) acceptance of foreign assistance which is beneficial to national development, provided there are no strings attached.

“In 1954 Myanmar, China and India, during Chinese Premier Chou En Lai’s visit to India and Myanmar expounded the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Accordingly, on 28.6.1954 China and India signed in New Delhi and on 29.6.1954 Myanmar and China signed in Yangon, agreements to adhere to these Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. The Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence are: 1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; 2) to abide by mutual non-aggression; 3) non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; 4) respect for mutual equality and to work for mutual benefit; and; 5) peaceful co-existence. The above Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence still steadfastly remain the main cornerstone of Myanmar Foreign Policy.

“In matters of world affairs and international issues, in line with the principles and purposes of the United Nations and on the basis of the principles of Peaceful Co-existence, Myanmar has acted as follows; 1) actively participating in United Nations activities in accordance with its own basic principle; 2) consistently supporting disarmament; 3) opposing arms race, production and sales; 4) supporting national liberation movements; 5) supporting decolonialization; 6) opposing aggression of imperialists; 7) opposing colonialism, apartheid and racial discrimination; 8) supporting efforts to ensure world peace; and; 9) opposing aggressive imperialistic wars.

Foreign Policy Towards Myanmar

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, ““Beginning in the 1990s, in response to the regime's murderous rule, many Western governments imposed economic sanctions on Burma. The financial restrictions were tightened after the bloodshed of 2007. But over the past few years, an influx of investment from Asian countries, particularly China, has poured money into the pockets of the top brass, blunting the effect of the economic sanctions, which Aung San Suu Kyi has supported. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013; November 29, 2010 *]

Aung San Suu Kyi has been a key element of Myanmar’s foreign policy since the 1990s. Every time that the junta has released her it has demanded concessions from the international community. Every time she is imprisoned the political and economic screws are tightened. There have been an number of overseas protest calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners and various reforms in Myanmar . A number of Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Desmond Tutu and former world leaders like Vaclav Havel have been involved in petitions, United Nations actions against Myanmar and efforts to free Suu Ki

While the U.S. and other nations imposed sanctions on Myanmar, other nations such China, India, Thailand and Singapore continued to do business here. While Western nations opted for a confrontational approach to dealing with Myanmar that emphasized sanctions and ostracism, the nations in Asia tended to be more gentle and neighborly. Some countries such as China trade freely with Myanmar and providing the military regime with aid and weapons. Japan has also carried on with various kinds of economic relations with Myanmar.

Sanctions have placed on Myanmar by the United States, the European Union and a number of international donor agencies strengthened Myanmar’s ties with its neighbors such as China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand—and Japan and South Korea too. Myanmar has signed various agreements with these countries and has carried on various kinds of trade. Through ASEAN the countries of Southeast Asia have made some threats directed at Myanmar about this and that but have not followed up with concrete action. Without the cooperation of Myanmar’s neighbors the sanctions had only a limited effect.

Sanctions Against Myanmar and Their Effectivness

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Myanmar beginning in 1991 and gradually increased their severity and scope so they included freezing the assets of top officials and banning almost all investment there. The European Union followed suit with its own sanctions in 2006 (some European nations imposed their own sanctions earlier). The sanctions imposed by the European nations have been weaker than those of the United States. Australia also imposed sanctions. See United States, European Union.

The U.S. banned imports from Myanmar, restricted money transfers, froze assets and targeted jewelry with gemstones originating in the country. The European Union banned weapons sales and mineral imports.

Supporters of sanctions argued they worked in South Africa and cut off the regime from money that kept them afloat. The sanctions were supported by Aung San Suu Kyi and pro-democracy supporters in Myanmar, who said they also oppose foreign investment, aid and tourism to Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi urged foreign businesses to "jolly well wait" before investing in Burma. Opponents of the sanctions said they hurt ordinary people and didn’t work and even though most of money they cut off ends in the hands of the elite some is bound to trickle down to ordinary people.

The historian Thant Myint-U wrote in the Washington Post, “By the early 1990s nearly all Western aid to Burma had been terminated, and development assistance through the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had been blocked. A decade later, embargos and boycotts had cut off nearly all economic ties with the United States and Europe. None of the senior Burmese government officials or their children (these are the only international sanctions targeting children) are allowed to travel to the West. But as the regime not only survived but began to seek trade, investment and tourism. [Source: Thant Myint-U, Washington Post, August 16, 2009 ^]

“Few seemed aware, for example, that Burma was just emerging from decades of civil war. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government and more than a dozen different ethnic insurgent armies hammered out cease-fires, a breakthrough that went virtually unnoticed in the West. (Today, though the cease-fires remain, there is no permanent peace.) And few seemed concerned by the country's grinding poverty, the result of decades of economic bungling as well as embargos, boycotts and aid cutoffs. In 1991, UNICEF's country director warned of a humanitarian emergency among Burma's children, arguing that more aid couldn't wait for the right government. Eighteen years later, Burma still receives less than a tenth of the per-capita aid handed out to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Tens of thousands die needlessly from treatable diseases. ^

“Part of the reason is that the people who fashioned the sanctions didn't consider how the rise of Asia's giants — China and India — would transform Burma. As American businesses pulled out in the mid-1990s, Chinese and other Asian companies poured in. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of natural gas have been discovered offshore, and massive hydroelectric and mining projects are being signed. Within two years a 1,000-mile oil and gas pipeline will stretch across Burma, connecting China's inland provinces to the sea. The U.S. trade embargo led to the near-collapse of the garment industry in the late 1990s, throwing tens of thousands of people out of work, but for the regime this has meant little. ^

Aung San Suu Kyi on Sanctions

Aung San Suu Kyi supported the sanctions by the U.S. and other government against Myanmar She said, “We object to invest now because...we don’t think this is the right time for investing. The real benefits of investing now go to the military regime and their connections. They go to just a small privileged elite. And the people get very little. The trickle-own effect is such a tiny trickle that is disappears by the time it gets down to the lower level.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, Although Suu Kyi's moral imprimatur helped bring Western sanctions against the regime, the fact that many ordinary Burmese also feel their effects hasn't escaped her. "I am ready to reconsider my support of sanctions if it's for the benefit of all of us," she told me with surprising vehemence, countering critics who think her too unyielding. "I'm not afraid to consider change." Her openness acknowledges the “growing recognition that sanctions on Burma, despite their moral appeal, have not worked.” [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010]

Martin Petty of Reuters wrote: “Suu Kyi previously called for the sanctions but has changed her stance in recent years. She sent a letter last year to the country's paramount leader, Than Shwe, offering to help lift sanctions, but the junta dismissed her gesture as "insincere". [Source: Martin Petty, Reuters, November 19, 2010]

Ineffectiveness of the Sanctions Against Myanmar

Myanmar’s military junta was able to weather the sanctions. It seemed proud of its ability to survive under international isolation. One Western diplomat described Myanmar as having a “cockroach economy” in which the government would remain intact along with the cockroaches after everything else had collapsed.

Many believe the effectiveness of the sanctions was undermined by China, who has also undermined sanctions against North Korea. A restaurant owner in Yangon told the New York Times, “As long as China remains friendly nothing will change. China can provide everything the country needs from a needle to a nuclear bomb.” The U.S. State Department estimated that in 2003 Myanmar lost $200 million because of the U.S. ban on imports. During the same time trade between China and Myanmar was about $1 billion.

Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker, the sanctions did not stop “the regime from spending what is reported to be billions of dollars on its showpiece capital, Naypyidaw, which was carved out of the jungle...along the nation’s only eight-lane expressway. It is a sprawling, low-density metropolis with wide, empty boulevards, grandiose state architecture, and golf courses where regime insiders cut deals in the tropical heat. One Western diplomat who visits there frequently told me, “You can’t imagine what a diversion of resources it represents, and it’s still growing.” At the same time, the regime has ignored the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011 ]

“In fact, Thant Myint-U said, sanctions may have entrenched the regime and slowed the pace of reform. The dictatorship has been able to attract significant investment from China and, increasingly, from India, Korea, and other Asian nations. Chinese businessmen have formed lucrative real-estate and other partnerships with regime insiders; they now own concessions for teak, jade, and crude oil. “The West essentially dealt itself out of the game,” Thant Myint-U said, and as a result Myanmar has been pushed deeper into the arms of the Chinese. Sanctions may also have undermined the Burmese middle class, “probably the people on whom any democratic transition would depend.”

Martin Petty of Reuters wrote: “Embargoes by the United States, Australia and European Union, intended to push the generals toward reforms, have been criticized as ineffective as long as neighbors China, Thailand and India pour investment into the country, enriching the regime. Instead of an entrepreneurial middle class that could help clamor for change, the military and its cronies monopolize every industry, adding to a half-century of economic mismanagement in a country that was once one of Southeast Asia's most promising but where now a third of the people live in poverty, economists say. [Source: Martin Petty, Reuters, November 19, 2010]

Lifting of Sanctions on Myanmar

In January 2012, the European Union suspended travel bans on the Myanmar president and other top officials in the Myanmar government. In April 2012, the EU countries agreed to suspend most sanctions for a year. In April 2013, the European Union agreed to end almost all sanctions against Myanmar. See Foreign Relations

In April 2012, Reuters reported: “The European Union agreed to suspend most of its sanctions against Myanmar for a year. The suspension, which does not apply to a separate arms embargo, will allow European companies to invest in Myanmar. The EU had frozen the assets of nearly a thousand companies and institutions, and banned almost 500 people from entering the EU. It also prohibited military-related technical help and banned investment in the mining, timber and precious metals sectors. The EU is rewarding a shift that has seen many political prisoners freed and a range of repressive measures lifted.[Source: Justyna Pawlak and Sebastian Moffett, Reuters, April 23, 2012]

"President Thein Sein has taken important steps towards reform in Burma, and it is right for the world to respond to them,"British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. "But those changes are not yet irreversible, which is why it is right to suspend rather than lift sanctions for good." In a statement released by foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, the EU urged Myanmar to free remaining political prisoners and remove restrictions on those already released. The EU has already offered 150 million euros ($200 million) in development aid for this year and next, a sharp rise from the less than 200 million euros it has given since sanctions were launched in 1996.

In April 2012, the United States eased sanctions for NGO projects. In July 2012, a U.S. ban on imports from Myanmar was allowed to expire without being renewed. In n September 2012, the U.S. eased trade restrictions on Myanmar goods and waived the visa ban for Myanmar officials and removed sanctions that blocked the assests of Myanmar President Thein Sein. In November 2012, before Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar, the import ban was eased.

In May 2012, the BBC reported: “The United States has eased some sanctions on investment and relations with Burma in response to political reform there. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said broader laws on sanctions against Burma would remain in place to safeguard against "backsliding". Restrictions on investments have been relaxed and the first US ambassador in 22 years has been announced. The move follows limited democratic reform in Burma. Striking a note of caution, President Barack Obama told the US Congress the administration continues "to have concerns, including remaining political prisoners, ongoing conflict and serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas". [Source: BBC, May 17, 2012]

In July 2012, Reuters reported: “President Barack Obama eased sanctions against Myanmar to allow U.S. companies to invest there, calling it a "strong signal" of support for political reform taking root in the southeast Asian country. But Obama said Washington remained concerned about the lack of investment transparency as well as the military's role in Myanmar's economy and made clear that U.S. firms would be required to make detailed disclosures on their dealings there. "Today the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a statement, praising the country for "significant progress along the path to democracy." [Source: Reuters, July 12, 2012]

United Nations and Myanmar

Over the past two decades the United Nations constantly put pressure on the Myanmar military regime to free Aung San Suu Kyi, allow her to speak, free other political prisoners and make democratic reforms. United Nations Security Council action against Myanmar was blocked by vetoes from China and Russia. The United States drafted resolutions calling for the release of political prisoners and democratic reforms but was unable to get Security Council approval. In September 2006, by a Security Council vote of 10-4, Myanmar was placed on the United Nations agenda despite strong opposition by China. The others that voted against the motion were Russia, Congo and Qatar. Efforts by the U.S. to pass a resolution—which could have led to punitive measures against Myanmar—were unsuccessful. In January 2007, the resolution was struck down with a vote of 9-3. Nine nations including its sponsor voted for it but China and Russia cast a rare double veto. South Africa also voted against it. Indonesia, Qatar and the Republic Of Congo abstained,

United Nation Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the junta on several occasions. In October 2003, he called the Myanmar military regime to bring about a transition to democracy by 2006. In March 2003 a United Nations envoy Paulo Sergio Piheiro cut short his visit to Myanmar after finding a listening devise in a prison room where he was interviewing political prisoners. He was barred from entering Myanmar in late 2003 after he accused the regime of making “absurd” excuses to keep political opponents in prison.

United Nations envoy Razali Ismail quit in January 2006 after being barred from entering Myanmar for two years. He helped set up a meeting between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi in 2000 but was not allowed to visit Myanmar after December 2005. He was pessimistic about change and urged ASEAN and the international community to take a hard line against the Myanmar generals.

United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari—a Nigerian diplomat— made several visits to Myanmar in the late 2000s. He met with Myanmar leaders and pushed for the release of political prisoners. Sometimes he was allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders. Other times he wasn’t.

In 2007 United Nations country chief Charles Petrie was kicked out of Myanmar for a statement he issued about Myanmar’s deepening poverty. Reuters reported: “Petrie had been summoned to a meeting in the former Burma's new capital, Naypyitaw, for an official dressing down for the statement. "Afterwards, he and colleagues were given a letter saying the military government would not support any request by the U.N. to renew Petrie's assignment, due to end "pretty much now," a diplomat said. [Source: Reuters, November 3, 2007]

United Nations Staff Jailed in Myanmar

In August 27, 2012, two United Nations workers were sentenced to jail terms for alleged involvement in ethnic violence between Buddhists and Muslims in June. Associated Press reported: “The punishments were handed down in the Rakhine state town of Maungdaw, said Aye Win, a U.N. spokesman based in Burma. One of those sentenced was an employee of the U.N. refugee agency and the other the U.N. World Food Programme. A spokesperson for the world body's refugee agency in Bangkok, Vivian Tan, called the verdicts "very disappointing". [Source: Associated Press, August 27, 2012 =]

“Tan said a third aid worker employed by another unidentified humanitarian group working with the U.N. was also convicted. The Burma independent newspaper Weekly Eleven reported that the staff members – all believed to be from the local Muslim community – were charged with crimes including promoting hatred between Buddhists and Muslims and participation in arson attacks. The paper cited anonymous court sources in its report, and said the sentences ranged from two to six years. Violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims exploded in June, leaving more than 80 people dead and thousands of homes burned to the ground. =

“Humanitarian groups claim that at least 12 local staff employed by international aid groups were detained by the government in June for suspected involvement in the unrest. Six have so far been released. Doctors Without Borders said two of its employees were still being held, while the U.N. refugee agency said two Burmese nationals on its staff were in custody. The World Food Programme is also believed to have staff who have been detained. =

U.N. Envoy Says Mob Attacked His Car in Myanmar

In August 2013, Tomás Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, said a 200-strong mob attacked his car during an August 22 visit to the central Myanmar town of Meikhtila, where a wave of anti-Muslim riots in March killed at least 43 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands. Presidential spokesman Ye Htut denied Ojea Quintana had been attacked and said the U.N. envoy mistook the crowd's intentions.

Reuters reported: “A U.N. human rights envoy said a 200-strong mob attacked his car in central Myanmar, kicking windows and doors and shouting abuse, as he arrived to investigate Buddhist-led violence against Muslims, but the government said he was mistaken. Tomás Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, said the attack occurred at about 10.30 p.m. in Meikhtila, where a wave of anti-Muslim riots in March killed at least 43 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands. [Source:Reuters, August 22, 2013]

Ojea Quintana's accusations of a mob attack underscore the challenges Myanmar's reformist government faces in containing violence and pacifying long-simmering tensions in one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries. "The fear that I felt during this incident, being left totally unprotected by the nearby police, gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt when being chased down by violent mobs during the violence last March," he told reporters.

The Myanmar government denied the attack. "I'm so sorry that Mr. Quintana, as usual, seems to have said quite the opposite of what really happened on the ground," said presidential spokesman Ye Htut. "These people were waiting just to stage a peaceful protest and to give him a letter of protest. Some of them knocked on his car window to give him the letter but they didn't open it and the police finally drove them away," he said. Ojea Quintana made the comments at the end of a 10-day visit to Myanmar, in which he toured regions worst affected by repeated anti-Muslim violence.

Foreign Aid and Development in Myanmar

During the 1990s Myanmar received less than $1 per person in foreign aid, a pittance when considering how poor and troubled the country is. In that time nearby Laos and Cambodia got 35 times more aid in per capita terms than Myanmar. The Irrawaddy reported: “For years, the U.S. and others used economic sanctions to pressure the junta to clean up its dismal human rights record and allow democratic reforms. As international donor aid poured into nearby countries, with Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos receiving $52, $34 and $67 per capita respectively in 2010, Myanmar got $7.

Making the same point in 2008, the Burmese historian Thant Myint-U wrote in Global Viewpoint: “Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in the world, with millions living in extreme poverty. But the average Myanmar citizen receives less than $2 a year in international aid - about a 10th of per capita aid to Vietnam and a 20th of per capita aid to Laos and Cambodia. Thousands, mainly children, die every year from treatable diseases like malaria. [Source: Thant Myint-U, Global Viewpoint, May 2008]

Myanmar received only $127 million of economic aid in 2001. Though the government had once looked forward to aid, it eventually became suspicious, especially when allegations of a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar were used to press for U.N. Security Council action. The government worried that humanitarian issues would serve as camouflage for a "regime-change" agenda and that aid workers themselves were a "fifth column." They knew that foreign funds were also helping pro-democracy dissidents both at home and abroad, and feared that aid programs were part of a conspiracy to unseat them.

As early at 1990, Rolf Carriere, then UNICEF director in Yangon argued that there was a desperate need for humanitarian and development aid in Myanmar, and that it could not wait for democratic change. His call went largely unheeded. The military government pleaded for assistance, especially from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to reform the economy. But Western governments had just begun to impose sanctions in the hope of nudging the junta towards democracy, and nearly all aid - including through the U.N. - was cut off. Only in the last several years have things begun to change. Several U.N. agencies and international charities have tried hard to expand help to the country's most vulnerable people, with support from a few governments like Britain and Norway. But it's hardly been enough.

Aung San Suu Kyi endorsed targeted humanitarian aid that optimized getting aid to people who need it an not the military. She was especially supportive of programs to tackle te AIDS problem. Myanmar has used its AIDS crisis to attract more foreign aid and justify its authoritarian rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi has the opposed the way Myanmar has been developed by the military regime. She told the Los Angeles Times, “ "Luxury hotels do not mean a developed Burma. The fact that we have new hotels does not make up for the fact that our children are less well-educated...Burma is not right for investment. The climate is not right, because he structural changes necessary to make an investment really profitable are not yet in place...We have now acquired in Burma, a small group of very, very rich people. We did not have such people...years ago—people who could go to a hotel and spend $1,000 on a meal. That was unheard of. The gap between the have and have-nots is increasing. That does not make for social stability."

Myanmar Bans AIDS-Related NGOs

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, “The authorities in Burma are risking lives and increasing the dangers of the HIV epidemic in the country by preventing foreign aid organisations from giving crucial help to patients suffering from AIDS, The Times has learnt. The ban is part of a growing hostility towards international organisations since the mass demonstrations by monks and political activists and the violent crackdown in September 2007. The Government has prevented aid workers and diplomats from visiting certain projects, made it difficult for them to secure visas and expelled the head of the United Nations in Burma for drawing attention to the humanitarian catastrophe facing the country. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, March 29, 2008]

‘An HIV/Aids project run by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) on behalf of its detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been devastated by the arrest of its leaders and organisers. In October 2007, police arrested the monks of the Maggin monastery in Yangon, which acted as a hospice for AIDS patients. The patients were transferred under guard to a government hospital where they were treated with suspicion, according to AIDS activists. At least two of them died soon afterwards and their deaths were accelerated, their supporters claim, by the callous treatment that they received.

“In the latest move, projects being run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Mandalay, including the British charities Save the Children and Marie Stopes International, have been suspended. Foreign NGOs in Mandalay have been banned from taking part in work that takes them outside their local offices, a ruling that hinders "outreach" programmes such as those that promote safe sex and the use of clean needles among drug users. Worse, they are also unable to deliver much-needed food to thousands of AIDS patients. Local authorities have offered to allow the deliveries to resume if the NGOs provide the names and addresses of patients, but aid workers refuse to comply. "If this continues, these people will not get food," Andrew Kirkwood, programme director for Save the Children in Burma, said. "We're talking about thousands of people, not hundreds."

World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Myanmar

Since the new quasi-civilian government came to power in March 2011, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been very active in sending advisors to Myanmar, offering advice, conducting research and drawing up plans. Until recently there had been no World Bank loans to Myanmar since 1987.

In August 2012, the World Bank opened an office in Yangon. Associated Press reported: “The bank’s regional vice-president for East Asia and the Pacific, Pamela Cox, said that its experts will analyze the country’s development needs and capacity to manage its budget and economy. She said re-establishing a full program would require first clearing Burma’s arrears of US $393 million to the World Bank and about $500 million to the Asian Development Bank. The bank stopped lending to Burma in 1987, when it stopped repaying its debt, a year before Western nations began imposing sanctions over the suppression of democracy. The last projects ended in the early 1990s. [Source: Matthew Pennington, AP, April 27, 2012]

“The United States, the bank’s largest shareholder, in February lifted its opposition to the multilateral development banks giving limited technical assistance for Burma, but other sanctions still require the US to oppose new lending. Cox said the pace of the bank’s re-engagement would depend on the consensus of the bank’s stakeholders. She said the bank would seek opportunities to boost people’s incomes so they can see the benefits of the government’s reforms.“Unless we generate real economic benefits for people, particularly in areas that have experienced conflict, there won’t be broad-based support in the future,” she said. She said the full extent of Burma’s debts to bilateral creditors, including China, was not yet clear, and the IMF would further analyze Burma’s capacity to sustain any new borrowing.

“Cox said Burma was in less severe straits than Vietnam was when it re-engaged with the bank and the international community in the early 1990s but had a lower government capacity in economic management. The bank also plans to help Burma establish a legal framework to cope with an expected influx of foreign investment as sanctions are lifted and on budget management, as well as assist in financial sector reforms needed for a functioning foreign exchange market.

In November 2012, the World Bank approved new aid for Myanmar, approving $80 million in development aid. Cox said the bank has a further $165 million in loan assistance committed for Myanmar after it clears its $900 million in arrears to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Japan is helping that process, expected to be completed by January. [Source: Matthew Pennington, AP, November 1, 2012]

"This is a government moving at warp speed in terms of opening up," Cox told reporters. She said that in its strategy, the bank was focusing on helping build the public systems needed to foster transparency. She also stressed the need for Myanmar's people to quickly see the benefits of the reform process. The $80 million project includes $25,000 grants to villages in 15 townships across the country, where community councils will identify the kind of help they want, such as roads, bridges, irrigation systems, schools, health clinics or rural markets.

Asian Development Bank Returns to Myanmar

In 2013 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said it was is resuming operations in Myanmar, with an assistance package for social and economic development that is designed to build a solid foundation for further reforms to alleviate poverty and foster growth. “This is a historic tipping point for Myanmar,” said Stephen Groff, Vice President of Operations for East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. “To be sure the country is best positioned to benefit from the resumption of donor aid, we are focusing first on the building blocks for stability and sustainability, which will ultimately lead to major investments in road, energy, irrigation and education projects, as well as investments in other sectors.” [Source: Asian Development Bank, January 23, 2013]

The ADB’s first major assistance will help Myanmar develop a competitive economy by focusing on improved public finance, trade, investment, small and medium-sized enterprises, and financial sector development, building on significant measures the government has already taken, including major reforms to its central bank and trade and investment liberalization. In rural areas, where development has been hindered by lack of infrastructure, restrictions on land usage, poorly developed support services, and limited access to financial services for farmers, ADB’s funding will help develop a strategy to make banking services more widely available. It will also identify and address gaps in technical and secondary education access, enabling more of Myanmar’s people to prepare for and benefit from the country’s anticipated boom.

The $512 million loan, the first from ADB in almost 30 years, was made possible through bridge financing provided to the Myanmar government by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) on 17 January 2013. The loan will also be used to finalize arrears clearance and sustain government efforts to revamp the national budget process and modernize tax administration. It will also support trade policy reforms and capacity development, improve the investment climate and small and medium-sized enterprise development.

When the Asian Development Bank cut off aid to Myanmar in 1988, troops had just crushed a pro-democracy movement, killing thousands. Before the current aid package was approved Myanmar and the ADB had to figure out what to do with previous debts of nearly $500 million owed by Myanmar to the Manila-based ADB. A deal was worked out with help from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). [Source: Jason Szep, Reuters, June 30, 2012]

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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