The changes in Myanmar over the past five years are undeniably striking as evident from the availability of Daw Aung San Su Kyi t-shirts on the side streets of Yangon to the absence of vacancies at the international business hotels. The government under President Thein Sein clearly has embarked upon a path of reform and has reached out to its former opponents to help pave the way for a better future.
In terms of attitude, long-term foreign residents of Myanmar still speak of latent xenophobia and an authoritarian streak that will be nettlesome to both foreign investors and Myanmar reformists. Change will need to be measured by Myanmar's own reckoning of time.
Once Myanmar’s political situation achieves a more mature settlement, there is still the challenge of maintaining the unity of a multi-ethnic state. The Burmans, who primarily inhabit the central part of the country surrounding the Ayeyarwady River Basin, constitute two thirds of the population. Various ethnic states, constituting the home land of groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, the Mon and the Arakanese, are clusted on the western, northern and eastern borderlands of Myanmar. In the years ahead, the primary challenge of Myanmar’s leaders will be to find a suitable compromise between secessionist aspiration and national unity.
The U.S. has welcomed the recent reforms undertaken by the government of Myanmar, and taken some steps to resume normal diplomatic relations with Myanmar, thereby paving the way for a possible future lifting of sanctions against Myanmar if reforms continue. In late 2011, the U.S. Government appointed its first special envoy to Myanmar. In January 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. and Myanmar will exchange ambassadors, which would represent the first such relationship between the countries since the U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Myanmar in 1990.
Various U.S. officials have indicated a willingness to relax sanctions against Myanmar, or remove such sanctions entirely, if reforms continue at their current pace. There appears to be some bipartisan support in Congress to begin lifting restrictions on Myanmar. In addition, certain aspects of current U.S. sanctions have been imposed by the President’s exercise of authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and could therefore be lifted without specific new legislation from Congress.