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Originally published Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Myanmar reforms will only last if the country’s people benefit

Myanmar reforms will only last if the country’s people benefit, writes guest columnist Ryker Labbee.

Special to The Times

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HOPE and change. Although the challenges of governing amid an economic crisis and deep polarization in Washington have made those once-common words rare in President Obama’s recent speeches, he had reason to re-embrace them this week.

On Monday, Obama became the first American president to visit the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma. And although it remains unfamiliar to most Americans, Myanmar is changing rapidly. Current developments in the country are important and worth following — and we have a role to play.

Whether present reforms endure depends in part on the involvement of outsiders. As we engage in Myanmar, we must adopt the interests of the country’s people as our own. Earning profits and gaining influence cannot be our only goals.

What makes Myanmar unusual is its sudden reversal of political and economic course. After a half-century of military rule and detachment from the global economy, Myanmar has abruptly shifted toward democracy and economic liberalization.

This shift, which has taken place in just two years, represents a rare opportunity for those who believe in democratic governance and open markets.

Unlike American efforts to spread democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Myanmar it is the people themselves clamoring for self-determination and engagement with the rest of world. Whatever the actual mix of factors motivating the government’s change in approach, the shift has not been coerced via externally imposed regime change or military intervention.

Democracy has a reasonable chance of taking hold in Myanmar in part because it is being embraced from within. Yet success is not guaranteed. If the Myanmar people do not feel the benefits of reform, the process will likely fail.

And therein lies the opportunity and challenge. We must work to ensure that the Myanmar people themselves — and not merely foreign investors or a well-connected domestic elite — benefit from reform.

We Americans have long desired to share the benefits of our system with others. Yet we have too often assumed that our own institutions and approaches are precisely what others need, ignoring their distinct cultures and political environments. We’ve also been slow to acknowledge that democracy and capitalism are imperfect.

In Myanmar, we have a chance to get things right. As our governmental and charitable organizations consider ways to help, we must focus on empowering local populations. Many organizations have mastered the language of “capacity building” and “empowerment” yet still fall short in implementation. We rely too heavily upon outsiders, answer questions we should be asking, and take control rather than enabling and supporting.

Foreign aid has been dubbed Cambodia’s “golden handcuffs,” creating dependency and easing pressure to provide services. In Myanmar, our assistance should liberate rather than handcuff the country’s people.

As our corporations and investors evaluate opportunities in the country — and there will be many — we must provide jobs, fair wages, decent benefits and skills development. We should preserve a beautiful culture and abundant natural resources.

Myanmar still faces daunting challenges. Disputes between the central government and ethnic minorities threaten stability. Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. The military maintains exclusive control over large portions of both houses of Parliament. Education, health care and basic infrastructure have been neglected for decades. With the lowest per-capita income in the region, Myanmar’s poor remain desperately poor.

Nevertheless, there is a palpable sense of hope among the people that things are changing at last. President Obama’s visit will surely embolden and encourage those driving reform.

Yet encouraging and rewarding reform cannot be our only role. We must work to ensure that our involvement empowers and elevates the Myanmar people. If we can help ensure that present reforms provide them with more than hope, then not only will reform continue, but we might one day have Myanmar to thank for playing a role in spreading democracy and salvaging capitalism for the world.

Ryker Labbee is an analyst and Myanmar country director for Cascade Asia Advisors, a Seattle-based risk assessment and strategic advisory firm. He was last in Myanmar in November 2011.


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