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Is Myanmar about to rejoin the world?

One of the three most closed and isolated countries in the world is opening up. The long-repressed Burmese say it's unbelievable - but they want to believe in a new Myanmar.

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"If Burma is to build relations with the West, it will have to make gestures that sacrifice Chinese interests," argues Du Jifeng, a Myanmar expert at the China Academy for Social Sciences in Beijing. "Chinese political and economic interests will definitely suffer, and Burma will not have to rely so much on China anymore."

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That, of course, suits US policymakers, as they implement President Obama's "pivot to Asia," a shift of US geostrategic emphasis toward China's neighbors – such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar – who are nervous about the Asian giant's burgeoning influence in the region.

Though the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project appears to have been mainly a gesture to the outside world, it also gratified the Kachin, one of the myriad ethnic minority groups that together make up more than 30 percent of the population and which have long resented domination by the majority Burmese ethnic group.

The Union of Myanmar, as the country is formally known, is a union in name only. The government has been fighting civil wars – using often savage tactics – with one or other of the ethnic minority armies in Myanmar's mountainous periphery ever since the country was founded in 1948.

Currently, only the Kachin are engaged in open hostilities. But more than 50,000 men and women remain under arms, and cease-fires with other ethnic groups such as the Shan, the Karen, and the Mon – leaving the rebels in administrative control of large areas – have only frozen the conflicts without resolving the minorities' grievances or granting their demands for political, economic, and cultural autonomy.

"The biggest challenge facing the country since independence is the relationship between the majority and minority populations," says Steinberg, of Georgetown University. "The real question is not democracy but a fair distribution of power and resources, and this is very, very difficult because there is exceedingly little trust on either side."

There are few signs yet of any willingness to compromise. The military has made national unity one of its cardinal values and sees federalism as the first step toward disintegration of the state. Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned recently on a platform of national reconciliation and wore ethnic dress when she visited minority areas, but she has never set out her vision of how she would seek to end more than six decades of civil war.

"The key to stability and democracy here is an answer to the ethnic issue," says the European diplomat. "That is the central problem facing the country, and there is still a big question mark hanging over it."

A whiff of profit attracts investors

Nor is the economic future entirely clear either, as the government and its team of foreign-trained advisers scramble to drag the country into the 21st century.

Myanmar has fallen decades behind its neighbors. Here, computers have not entirely replaced ancient ledgers, the infrastructure largely dates from the British colonial era, and once grand public buildings lie in disrepair.

Fifty years ago, Burma was a prosperous nation, the largest rice exporter in the world; but half a century of mismanagement under military rule ground it down until it became the second-poorest country in Asia, after Afghanistan, and the third-most-corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International's rankings, above only North Korea and Somalia.


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