Development Before Democracy

Why ASEAN Isn't Pressuring Myanmar to Reform

Myanmar's President Thein Sein waits for delegates to arrive for the 17th ASEAN-China Summit during the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw November 13, 2014. Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Nearly two years after the United States lifted its economic sanctions on Myanmar (also called Burma), the ruling military regime continues to repress the country’s people. Although the rapprochement between the United States and Myanmar had been proffered on the promise of economic, democratic, and social reform, the national outlook only grew darker in subsequent years as Myanmar President Thein Sein cracked down on the press, freedom of assembly, and religious minorities.

And so, in early 2014, after the World Bank published a damning report on Myanmar’s negative economic reality, U.S. President Barack Obama extended the executive orders that prohibit U.S. businesses and individuals from investing in Myanmar. Obama’s justification was that Thein Sein was not demonstrating enough progress and that the Myanmar government’s “actions and policies pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Despite Obama’s rebuke, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which are Myanmar’s main trading and investment partners, seem unfazed by Thein Sein’s lackluster reform efforts. Even worse, they might support it.

The reason ASEAN supports Thein Sein is simple: members of the group accrued significant financial benefits during the 20 years of sanctions on Myanmar, and they may not be eager to give them up. Myanmar's regional partners enjoy uniquely protected positions in its resource-rich economy; true economic and political reforms may jeopardize these advantages if they lead to an increase in market competitors. As the United States tightened sanctions over 20 years, China, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand became Myanmar’s main trading partners, accounting for over 90 percent of the nation’s trade by volume. Multinational corporations (MNCs) from these countries conducted business in the nation through preferential trade deals established by the secretive military regime. The business of those MNCs fueled the wealth of military regime members, their families, and supporters. An example is Tay Za, the self-proclaimed richest man in Myanmar who is

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