After new democratic elections, the ambassador from the Southeast Asian country said his government is working to end ethnic strife that threatens economic growth.
By B. L. Wilson
The Myanmar ambassador to the United States answered a wide range of questions about ethnic conflicts in his country and Myanmar’s political and economic development on Monday at the Elliott School of International Affairs.
The visit by Ambassador Aung Lynn was part of the Ambassadors Forum speaker series at ESIA. In an address titled “The New Myanmar,” Mr. Lynn said the conflicts with ethnic nationalities should not stand in the way of economic development.
“We are committed to work with all the parties concerned. We know that it is a problem in our country. We will address it,” Mr. Lynn said. “We are serious. But don’t make this only an issue to block or to hinder activities of U.S. companies in our country.”
Mr. Lynn’s speech at the George Washington University came just weeks after President Obama announced the lifting of sanctions against the country that had been imposed by Congress more than two decades ago and amid growing international concern over possible human rights violations of Muslims by the country’s military.
Foreign investment in Myanmar has increased dramatically since democratic elections in November 2015 that brought the country the first civilian government in 50 years.
Mr. Lynn spoke about his country’s long march toward independence from the ancient Bagan kingdom through British colonialism and years of military domination. He said that throughout that time, Myanmar has seldom been at peace. Political stability has been hard to achieve with 130 nationalities often vying for some degree of autonomy or engaging in armed insurrection, he said.
“At the time, the government was politically weak because of the different insurgency problems and also because of the secession problems,” Mr. Lynn said. “The country was doing very well economically, but when you look at the political situation, things were not very good.”
Despite ongoing conflicts, the student disturbances in 1988 and the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar moved toward democratic rule. More reforms followed her release in 2010.
“2015 was a landmark year,” he said. Multi-party elections took place. The National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, and President Htin Kyaw became the first civilian president, a stand in for NLD leader Ms. Kyi, who under the constitution could not become president. She became the state counselor and foreign minister.
The priority of the National League for Democracy government, Mr. Lynn said, is for national reconciliation, a peace process that moves the country toward a federal union and improving the living standards of the people. That cannot be achieved without a ceasefire agreement and a political dialogue involving many armed groups engaged in conflicts in the country, he said.
In a discussion following his presentation, moderator Linda Yarr, director of GW’s Partnership for International Strategies in Asia, wondered whether managing the revenue from Myanmar’s rich natural resources (timber, precious gems, oil and natural gas) was a factor in the peace process.
"As a consequence of decades of instability in the post-colonial period, the task of settling the conflicts between Myanmar's government and the armed groups in minority areas of the country, is exceedingly complex,” Ms. Yarr said. “At the same time, making progress to improve citizens' living conditions, especially their access to electricity, health care and education, cannot be postponed.”
Mr. Lynn said that his government is “trying to reach some kind of solution to allocate the resources and the revenue generated in the future.”
Mr. Lynn described a number of projects now underway to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, including partnerships with China, India and Japan. India has committed to completing a highway linking some of the farther reaches of Myanmar to India and Thailand.
“I must tell you the military must be part of our nation-building forces,” he said. “The United States would be a very good partner for our country if the government can train the military… how to be the military of a democratic country.”