By William Pesek
Unless it's an elaborate ruse, and only time will tell, Myanmar is giving democracy a try.
This is not the elections-based, human-rights-driven democracy U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would like. But it is a surprisingly transparent and thoughtful effort to open up to the world.
First, Myanmar's leaders scrapped a huge hydro-electric dam project amid popular discontent. Then, a week later, they granted amnesty to more than 6,300 prisoners. Taken together, the moves may signal even more significant policy changes ahead. They build on steps taken by Myanmar President Thein Sein to loosen state controls on public discourse since taking power in an election last year that ended five decades of military rule. He also has held talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from detention 11 months ago.
The emphasis here must be on "may." The administration of President Barack Obama is right to view events in Rangoon with suspicion. Yet it's wisely extending an olive branch of sorts. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for Asia, this week said that Myanmar is witnessing “dramatic developments” and the U.S. stands ready to revamp ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
If recent actions by Myanmar's leaders are followed up by substantive policy changes, this will be a big story for markets. Myanmar is an extraordinarily resource-rich nation. In recent years, China, India and Thailand have invested in its ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines to gain access.
What's fascinating is how Myanmar is doing something few in Asia dare to do: risking China's ire. Suspending construction of a $3.6 billion dam being built with China's backing didn't go over well in Beijing. That, along with the release of political prisoners, delighted Washington. Also, Myanmar may offer a roadmap for North Korea to open its isolated economy.
Is Myanmar expressing a sudden preference for the West over China? Only time will tell, and pundits know better than to try to get into the heads of Myanmar's leaders. Yet it's hard to see this as anything but good news in the world's fastest-growing economic region.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)-0- Oct/12/2011 15:10 GMT