On November 13th, President Obama announced the establishment of a new Peace Corps program in Myanmar. The statement was issued in Naypyidaw, the Burmese capital, where leaders from China, India, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Australia, and other regional powers had convened for the 25th ASEAN Summit. This diplomatic overture comes at a critical juncture in Myanmar’s political development and demonstrates the United States’ ongoing commitment to nurturing the fledgling democracy.
Myanmar will become the 141st country to host a Peace Corps contingent since the program was founded over five decades ago; the 140th was Kosovo, which welcomed its first group of volunteers last August. The inaugural cohort of the Myanmar Peace Corps will be deployed in late 2015. They will begin with a three-month training and initiation program, followed by two years in their assigned locations, where it is hoped that they will forge “people-to-people connections at a grassroots level.”
The Peace Corps was formally established by President Kennedy in March 1961 with the stated aim of dispatching “missionaries of democracy” into various developing countries. By December of that year, over 500 volunteers had been posted to nine countries, including India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. At present, there are thirteen active Peace Corps programs in the Asia Pacific, with 1021 current volunteers: Cambodia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Samoa, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Twelve more countries in the region have hosted Peace Corps recruits in the past but no longer do so, owing to shifts in political or economic circumstances: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Cook Islands, India, Kiribati, Malaysia, the Marshall Islands, Niue, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, South Korea, and the Solomon Islands. To date, 45,818 volunteers have served in the Asia-Pacific, out of a cumulative total of more than 220,000 Peace Corps aid workers worldwide.
Obama’s announcement reflects growing concerns that Myanmar’s democratization has stagnated since his optimistic 2012 visit. Freedom of the press has been sharply circumscribed, with 10 journalists incarcerated this past year. Aung San Suu Kyi, Parliamentary opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is precluded from the presidency on a dubious technicality. Ethnic and religious tensions are running high, with the Rohingya Muslim minority facing greater persecution than ever before. A Peace Corps presence in the country attests to the Obama administration’s continued interest in helping Myanmar accomplish its much-anticipated democratic transition. Expansion of the Fulbright program into Myanmar is expected to follow suit.
Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.