- U Soe Thane is minister of the Office of the President of Myanmar and a key economic adviser to the government.
Over the past few days, the world has been increasingly concerned with the plight of thousands of men, women and children attempting to cross the Bay of Bengal. I empathize with their plight and share these concerns.
The search for and rescue of people at sea is an international responsibility, and the Myanmar Navy will provide assistance to anyone in its territorial waters in need of help. Urgent humanitarian action must now take precedence, but we must also consider medium- and longer-term strategies.
The crisis caused by human trafficking and smuggling will not go away soon. Nor will the crippling poverty and hopelessness that drive individuals to embrace extreme risks on the road for a chance at a better life.
Open to advice
Myanmar has been on the road from military dictatorship to democracy for four years. This is never an easy journey, and we know that around the world transitions from authoritarian to civilian rule can fail. We are determined not to fail, and in order to succeed, we have had to balance interests with the pace of change and connect our aspirations to political realities on the ground. In four years, we have had to address issues related to political liberalization and reconciliation, economic development after decades of stagnation, normalization of relations with the rest of the world and the ending of over a dozen different ethnic-based armed conflicts.
In all this, we have been open to advice from anyone. We welcome discussion and constructive criticism. We ask, though, that our friends outside add not fuel, but bring water to the fires that we have to put out as we open up our country and our society after so many years of authoritarian rule. We ask not for finger-pointing, but for help from anyone who will join hands in actually tackling, in a realistic and sustainable way, the myriad problems we face.
In Rakhine State in 2012 we faced terrible communal violence that left hundreds dead and displaced tens of thousands from both Muslim and Buddhist communities. We faced a situation where feelings were high and a single incident could reignite violence.
That situation has changed. We have managed not only to prevent any new violence, but also to begin to address the roots of violent feeling. We ask anyone concerned to come and see conditions for themselves and learn firsthand what is happening. In Rakhine State, over 20 different international aid organizations are present. As the United Nations and other bodies know well, we are taking the first steps toward reintegration. Anyone who has worked to normalize life after violent intercommunal conflict knows how difficult and sensitive this is.
While we address the emergency needs of the individuals stranded at sea in the immediate term, in the medium term we must crack down on those smugglers and traffickers who prey on the vulnerabilities of migrants. I believe that the issues of human trafficking and smuggling can only be addressed through regional and international coordination and cooperation.
End the blame game
Rather than seeing the current migrant crisis as simply an extension of the situation in Rakhine State and blaming Myanmar alone, it would be far better if the rest of the world could help in finding a practical way forward. What we are seeing now touches on the much broader issue of economic migrants and their plight. This is a regional problem that requires bilateral and regional solutions with much international support.
And in thinking of practical ways forward, we need to be mindful of history and of the current dynamics in all their aspects, as well as of our aspirations to develop holistic strategies that are tested against on-the-ground realities. Myanmar is at an incredibly sensitive and pivotal moment in its history, involving not just Rakhine State or one people in Rakhine State, but all 53 million of its people.
There is reason to hope, but only if the rest of the world is genuinely interested in finding solutions and not just apportioning blame. For the longer term, it is imperative that we invest in our people and the development of their surroundings.
Rakhine State has tremendous economic potential. It has abundant land and water, and now, thanks to very recent efforts, a good supply of electricity. We can now improve livelihoods, generate income, and create better opportunities for everyone, regardless of race or religion. If we do this, the pull of migration and especially illegal migration will disappear.
But for this we need investment in manufacturing, fishing, farming and the many other sectors that could easily grow. A billion dollars in investment would be transformational. To those who are today blaming Myanmar for the boat crisis, we ask that you instead help us craft and implement an inclusive development strategy — based not on aid but on investment — that will improve the lives of everyone in Rakhine State.
The world is rightly focused on urgent humanitarian needs. Next we need to quickly look at practical strategies, including the inclusive and sustainable development of Rakhine State.
(This article appeared in Nikkei Asian Review magazine on 1 June and has been reprinted with the permission of the author.)