United States President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar this week highlights both the possibilities and challenges facing a country undergoing a dramatic transformation - and America's vital role. His visit takes place as reform is obviously under strain, and many observers accuse Myanmar of backsliding. However, curtailing American engagement and halting the ongoing normalization of the bilateral relationship is not an option.
That the reform process is hitting roadblocks should come as no surprise. In a sense, many of the "easiest" reforms have been undertaken. The unfinished work involves more fundamental issues: national reconciliation in a country that has experienced decades of internal armed conflict; religious violence and tensions between the majority Buddhist and minority Muslim populations; the future role of the military in politics; the nature and extent of constitutional reform; and the manner by which the 2015 elections will be conducted, to name a few.
When signs of far-reaching change became evident in 2011, the American business community called on the U.S. government to engage with Naypyidaw and find ways to support the reformers. To its credit, the U.S. government responded adroitly.
Following the free and fair by-election of 2012, the U.S. eased sanctions that had previously barred new U.S. investment and the provision of financial services in the country. Later in 2012, the U.S. lifted a blanket ban on imports from Myanmar. These shifts were reasonable and appropriate, and we continue to support the normalization of other aspects of the bilateral relationship.
Myanmar's government and private sector have emphasized repeatedly that they welcome U.S. companies and investment, and for good reasons. U.S. businesses hire and procure locally, offering excellent wages and working conditions. They invest in the training and development of their workforces, and transfer skills and technology. They bring with them best practices in terms of corporate governance. They undertake an array of corporate social responsibility efforts and observe high environmental, labor, and human rights standards.
The easing of U.S. sanctions has allowed the people of Myanmar to begin to reap these benefits. This contrasts with Myanmar's experience with investment from some other countries, where the results have not always been good.
Having been estranged for decades, the U.S.-Myanmar relationship is still in its early days. U.S. investment remains quite modest. In part, this stems from lingering U.S. sanctions, which for some firms are a disincentive, and from the challenges of the marketplace itself. It is simply a difficult place to do business. In a recent U.S. Chamber/AmCham survey, U.S. investors on the ground in Myanmar cited poor infrastructure, corruption, high prices, an opaque operating environment, and shortages of skilled personnel as a few of the challenges they face.
At the same time, Myanmar has successfully invited bids for major contracts in areas like telecom and oil and gas under fair and transparent terms. It is opening up to foreign investment and has signed on to the New York Convention for arbitration of investment disputes. It is also working to accede to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and is adopting intellectual property rights laws in cooperation with the World Intellectual Property Organization and other international intellectual property protection forums. It is tackling fraught issues such as land reform and is trying to build a basic banking and financial services infrastructure; last month it granted approval to nine international banks to operate there.
The unfinished reform agenda is long and difficult, but the United States has a stake in Myanmar's success and an important role to play. It is incumbent upon the U.S. to build upon the progress so far in partnership with Myanmar, identifying priority areas in which the U.S. public and private sectors are well placed to provide assistance and expertise.
If the U.S. abdicates its role in Myanmar, other countries will be more than happy to step in. In contrast, by engaging vigorously, America can demonstrably support continued reform. It may be harder to keep the doors open when things are going badly, but that is precisely what we must do.
Myron Brilliant is the executive vice president and head of International Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business federation representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions.