In the past year, Myanmar has been hailed internationally for taking unprecedented steps towards democracy, but what it hopes to gain from democratization–increased investments, development aid, diplomatic relations, and national security–will only be fully realized if the Myanmar government incorporates public diplomacy as a central part of its transition strategy. Specifically, Myanmar officials should focus on creating a globally recognized national brand for Myanmar that is synonymous with ‘emerging democracy’, enhancing Myanmar’s regional role, and increasing English education by participating in English language programs.
Myanmar’s most pressing foreign policy goal is to convince Western nations to lift financial and travel sanctions, because they prevent the country from taking advantage of its plentiful natural resources, including offshore oil and gas deposits. The U.S. maintains that it will only remove all sanctions when it feels that Myanmar has demonstrated a serious commitment to democracy. To do this, Myanmar officials should brand the country as an emerging democracy through establishing one name by popular referendum, promoting the emerging term ‘Myanmar Model’ to describe the unique type of top-down democratization, and embracing Aung San Suu Kyi as the international face of democracy in Myanmar. To Western countries, Suu Kyi’s participation in Myanmar political life certifies and legitimizes it. President Thein Sein and his government must continue public dialogue with Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The government should not be held captive by the NLD; rather, it is important that Suu Kyi feels included in the political process because Western policymakers look at her and the NLD to determine the success of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
Myanmar should also use public diplomacy to demonstrate its strong investment climate, in order to attract foreign investors when sanctions have been lifted. Myanmar can position itself as a more prominent member of the regional and global community by hosting regional summits for organizations in which Myanmar is a member, giving officials the opportunity to set the touristic agenda for visiting diplomats and bureaucrats. Myanmar was recently named the 2014 host country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and can use this opportunity to introduce the newly democratic country. Myanmar can also increase its desirability as an Western investment destination by participating in English language programs and scholarships such as the U.S. State Department’s English Access program, Fulbright Scholarship, and the British Council’s English Language program.
In the past year, Myanmar has sought to limit Chinese influence in its economy, and strong public diplomacy that results in Western investment will diversify Myanmar’s financial partners and improve its national security. This is a critical time to be practicing public diplomacy with Western countries–especially the U.S.– because many are beginning to shift their foreign policy focus towards containing China and gaining a foothold in the South China Sea, where Myanmar is located. Public diplomacy should be a central aspect, rather than an afterthought, of Myanmar’s transition strategy in order to tell the country’s remarkable story on its own terms.
Claire Ashcraft is a senior at George Washington University where she studies International Affairs with a Middle East concentration. She also studied Middle East politics and Arabic, and interned at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, at the American University of Beirut. This summer she is interning at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar.
- US, Suu Kyi agree Myanmar reforms fragile (wtvm.com)
- Citizen Media Trend in Myanmar (mmnetizens.wordpress.com)
- Suu Kyi to give Nobel lecture during Norway visit (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Obama says world will try for Burma reform (rawstory.com)
- ASEAN: Myanmar forges ahead with Democratic Reforms (dinmerican.wordpress.com)