Why Myanmar needs foreign-policy think tanks

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Myanmar has emerged from 50 years of military dictatorship and begun to reconnect with the international community. Having existed in a state of self-isolation for so long, its understanding of the outside world is limited and distorted. Policymakers lack knowledge about critical issues. Myanmar needs foreign-policy expertise to help policymakers understand what is happening in the world and how it will impact the nation.

Because of the legacy of self-isolation and inward-looking policies during the decades of the military junta, most Myanmar government officials do not pay significant attention to international affairs. Policy discussions are predominantly about domestic issues. The assumption is that what happens in the region does not affect Myanmar directly.

Policymakers don’t seem to realize that foreign-policy and strategic studies are vital for any country, not only for knowledge accumulation but also for the practical purpose of developing an international policy that reflects national interests. As a result, serious studies on foreign-policy issues are lacking.

Central questions for Myanmar include: the impact of Donald Trump’s US presidency, how Myanmar can exploit opportunities offered by China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiatives, and the significance of terrorism and religious fundamentalism, among others.

World news is reported through local media and foreign-based broadcasting services, such as BBC Burmese and Voice of America’s Myanmar program. Merely staying abreast of the news is not enough, however. In-depth, contextual and research-based foreign-policy analyses are required.

Policymakers show little interest in building their capacity in foreign affairs, and even if they want to, they lack the resources to navigate such complex subjects. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is understaffed and overworked with day-to-day administrative duties, and hence can’t focus on policy analyses. Academics are not actively pursuing research, and misleading analyses from journalists and pundits are common.

It is vital that Myanmar improves its understanding of global issues. It needs foreign-policy think-tanks, given the country’s ever-increasing economic and diplomatic relations.

Policy think-tanks can have three functions. First, they provide independent and objective advice to policymakers on contemporary regional and international issues.

Currently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs formulates policies and makes decisions on bilateral and multilateral issues. The International Relations Committees of both houses of the parliament are involved in diplomatic relations. The Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, does some research. However, there is still room for think-tanks to produce data and analyses for policy circles, especially for parliamentarians who are less experienced and less informed about international affairs.

Think-tanks can also help the government by conducting rigorous policy research, offering expertise, and participating in Track 1.5 and Track 2 diplomacy.

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Second, research institutes for international studies inform the public about what is happening in the world. With in-depth studies and lectures from local and foreign scholars, thought leaders and policy experts, think-tanks provide authoritative voices on matters that are increasingly relevant to the public.

Some issues are critical, such as whether the Myitsone Dam, a controversial stalled project that China is financing in northern Myanmar, should be continued. Some are more theoretical, such as the impact of free trade on economic development in Myanmar. Foreign-policy organizations disseminate ideas and information that would help the public make informed decisions on global issues related to their business.

Third, think-tanks help develop the next generation of foreign-policy experts.

Universities in Myanmar reintroduced political science programs in 2013, a field the military junta had prohibited since 1988. Postgraduate diplomas in political science and international relations are popular among young professionals. A new wave of students are pursuing degrees in political studies and studying abroad with international scholarships. Foreign-policy think-tanks in Myanmar will provide a space for them, after graduation, to work on projects and engage with peers in academia and policy. Recent graduates will deepen their understanding about international relations and sharpen their analytical skills.

Nurturing future foreign-policy specialists is an essential task because Myanmar needs this resource pool to serve and promote its national interests.

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Important partners in this effort are foreign think-tanks and research programs. While Myanmar has paid little attention to foreign studies, countries with major interests in Myanmar are increasing their studies of the country. For instance, in 2015, the Australian National University established the Myanmar Research Centre to promote regional debate about political, social and economic reforms in Myanmar.

Chiang Mai University in Thailand has a major project on Myanmar’s development, with funding from the International Development Research Centre of Canada.

Yunnan University in China has created a Myanmar Studies Institute, and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore has expanded its country studies to include Myanmar.

Likewise, think-tanks and research organizations across North America, Europe and Asia have produced numerous analyses of Myanmar’s reforms. Almost overnight, Myanmar studies has become a significant subject in social science and policy communities. These institutions offer a ready source of assistance, and their familiarity with Myanmar could help overcome the inevitable obstacles that accompany any capacity-building process of the Myanmar think-tanks.

Myanmar took the unprecedented step of making major political and economic reforms over the past several years. It is imperative that Myanmar study the histories, politics, and cultures of the countries that are important to it.

For security, Myanmar needs to understand the thinking of Beijing, Washington and Brussels. In an increasingly globalized economy, comprehensive knowledge about East Asian countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the West should be acquired.

If Naypyidaw is too focused on domestic priorities such as ethnic conflicts and economic issues, local think-tanks can assist in crafting sound policies on international affairs. To facilitate Myanmar’s democratization, international donors should support such organizations with funding and capacity building.

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