April 23, 2012— As Myanmar emerges from isolation and pursues reform it is also intending to chair the 2014 summit meetings of the 10-member Association of South East Nations (ASEAN). This is a far cry from its position in 1967, when it decided against being a founding member of ASEAN because of concerns about intrusion into domestic policy. This turnaround gives providers of development assistance a unique opportunity to streamline assistance and support Myanmar’s aspirations in ASEAN.
Rather than devising “cooperative compacts,” as was done in Afghanistan and Iraq, donors can use Myanmar’s ASEAN commitments to focus and align assistance. Those commitments pertain to human rights, governance, anticorruption, health, labor, trade, investment, the environment, and disaster management as ASEAN nurtures a regional community based on political-security, economic, and sociocultural principles and measures. Aligned assistance can also support development milestones that Myanmar can highlight when it chairs ASEAN summit meetings.
One such milestone, for example, could involve upgrading Myanmar’s apparel industry and connecting it to other ASEAN producers. Speaking to apparel and footwear industry executives at the 2012 Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong, March 28-30, Nathan Associates’ Michael Blakeley described how the industry is seeking alternatives to China, the dominant supplier, as costs there rise and as the government shifts support to advanced industries like information technology. A new production source like Myanmar cannot be ignored. “In ASEAN itself, investors are highly interested in Myanmar and some garment factories in neighboring countries like Thailand are making moves to invest” said Blakeley, who works with AFTEX, the ASEAN textile federation.
Nathan Associates has long worked in Myanmar, formerly Burma. The firm’s founder, Robert Nathan, contributed to the country’s comprehensive development plan in 1953 and advised the government until 1962. Since 2004, the firm has been working with ASEAN on programs that have benefited Myanmar’s regional peers, including programs successfully integrating the region’s textile and apparel supply chains.
Much of the balanced development Robert Nathan championed in 1953 remains relevant today. He wrote that the development plan “must make possible … improved levels of living and welfare and human aspiration for all the people of Burma [and in] every productive sector (agriculture, forestry, mining, industry and trade) and every geographic region.” He also identified four obstacles to economic growth in Burma that still need to be overcome: (1) internal security; (2) shortage of skilled labor; (3) government organization and administration; and (4) lack of political will. Nathan concluded that if those following the 1953 development plan exercised determination, vigor and daring, “There is no reason why Burma, with its limited population in relation to its geographic area and its natural resources, should not in time enjoy one of the highest standards of living among the nations.”
This conclusion applies to Myanmar today as it pursues reform and a larger role in the ASEAN Community.