Burma in 2012

It’s almost been 3 years since I last posted. I’m so grateful and amazed that my humble blog has remained a forum for many folks interested in Burma. I truly appreciate every comment I receive, every piece of feedback. That said, a lot has happened since then, both in my personal life and in Burma. Only a few years ago, all the New Light of Myanmar frontpages featured men dressed in military outfits. Nowadays, the same men grabbing headlines are donning Mandarin-collared taikon eingyi, Burmese turbans and silk paso.

It’s amazing to see the pace of change in the country. But I honestly believe much of it has been rhetoric. But these changes are reversible, no doubt. Laws are meaningless if there’s no body capable of enforcing them. Officials still lack accountability, important in any democracy. The country is still weak and many of the Socialist-era and SPDC-era institutions (such as the country’s censorship body, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board along with a smorgasbord of restrictive laws) remain in place. And I’ve seen little news about the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), which was formed the day after SPDC was dissolved. According to the Constitution, the NSDC will supposedly step in during periods of martial law, but it’s a vaguely defined institution.

Yes, the country has opened up in some ways. The US and EU are have begun engaging with the Burmese government, soon after denouncing the deeply flawed elections. Aung San Suu Kyi is free and campaigning nationwide to become a member of parliament in by-elections this April. Many high profile political prisoners have been released.

Thein Sein gained international credibility by postponing, not permanently stopping, construction on a dam. The Myanmar Times reports:

The dam will be postponed until at least the end of the government’s five-year term, President U Thein Sein announced..

Similarly, the government halted plans to build a 4,000 MW coal plant in Dawei (which has been designated a Special Economic Zone), after protests by an environmental group. (But the Italian-Thai Development firm is still continuing with plans to build a 250 sq. km, $50-billion-plus site in Dawei, including a deep sea port, infrastructure links to Kanchanaburi province in Thailand, and a tourism resort.)

On the ground, the same old business seems to be in place, worryingly. And these are big problems to resolve. For instance, why did the Karen National Union deny signing a ceasefire deal with the government, 3 weeks after officials from both sides had signed one? The ethnic conflicts, like the one in Kachin State, are far from over. I sense that there’s a deep disconnect between the civilian government and the military (highlighted by an evening raid to capture and interrogate the monk-activist U Gambira) and a deep disconnect between the national and local levels (local restrictions on NLD campaigning). Or perhaps as some Burma watchers have asked, is this all part of a bad cop, good cop routine?

Burma is a broken state. No amount of investment, foreign aid, diplomacy or outside incentives will fix the myriad problems the country still faces. As optimistic as I am about Burma’s future, I predict that it will be decades before any substantial reforms are undertaken to improve the lives of ordinary people. The IMF had a rather optimistic assessment:

“The new government is facing a historic opportunity to jump-start the development process and lift living standards. Myanmar has a high growth potential and could become the next economic frontier in Asia, if it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies in the world, into its advantage.

But, as this commentary highlights:

But investors expecting Myanmar to be another Vietnam are likely to be disappointed. Instead, they are likely to find a market more akin to Angola: a shattered nation with minimal human capital. Myanmar has a large labour force, but unlike Asian exporting powerhouses which focused government resources on education, the quality of its labour is extremely low. For nearly two decades, the former military regime shuttered the finest secondary schools, to prevent students from gathering for protests. Today there are only a handful of well-educated younger Burmese skilled in information technology, communications, or management, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Myanmar.

– “Beware talk of business-friendly Myanmar,” Financial Times (Feb 20, 2012)

I think these two paragraphs pretty much sum up what the country needs to juggle:

Most of Asia’s authoritarian regimes have done the economic reforms before they embark on or are thrust by protest into political opening, notes Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political adviser to B.J. Habibie, who, as president, started Indonesia’s transition to democracy. Anwar was in Rangoon last week. Burma’s generals in new suits are trying to do both at once, as well as seeking peace with no fewer than 11 ethnic insurgent groups on its borders.

“This is a very special and uniquely challenging multiple transition,” said Thant Myint-U, author of two widely read books on Burma and grandson of a Burmese foreign minister and United Nations secretary-general, U Thant. “It could get it wrong, with the wrong sequencing of reform, the lifting of sanctions and the kind of aid that is received.”

–  “Tractors may have replaced horses, but country is still decades behind” (February 10, 2012)

Will Burma be able to tackle both economic AND political reform at once? The new year has just begun and I’m very excited to return to this blog and continue to explore the dynamics operating in the Burma of the past, present and future.

Postscript: I apologize for these erratic trains of thought.

3 thoughts on “Burma in 2012

  1. Wagaung says:

    They are putting on a jolly good show for the benefit of both domestic and foreign audiences aimed at specific goals, some falling for it especially the international corporate and banking groups already itching for a killing. Foreign debt is supposed to be in the order of $11 b.

    Superficially from what I’ve seen in Yangon and Mandalay, more new cars, not just almost uniformly white except buses wrapped in adverts, more neon signs, private petrol pumps alongside roadside stalls selling it in cans and bottles for the motorbikes, more tourists with the infrastructure struggling to cope, and yes, Daw Suu’s pictures everywhere.

    Unless we can believe that the same guys have undergone a Damascene conversion with a fundamental 180 degree change in their mindset and priorities, not just a change in their wardrobe and PR, a pretty impressive makeover, I’m afraid it ain’t gonna happen.

    • A. Kyaw says:

      I wholeheartedly agree. The new government has simply become clever enough to concede token gestures like the release of political prisoners. The underlying distribution of power remains as opaque as ever.

  2. Wagaung says:

    They haggled over the release of the 88 generation student leaders and Ashin Gambira. Thein Sein continued to deny the very existence of political prisoners, and then said he had done enough so the ball was in the court of the US/EU (to lift the sanctions). They reckoned releasing Daw Suu (not until after the Nov 2010 elections) was already more than enough. She knowingly or unknowingly now fulfills the role of the monkey for the organ grinder. Despite what she said she aimed to do, she has the chance of a snowball in hell to amend the 2008 Constitution in this parliament, albeit with the big carrot of 2015 dangling enticingly like a mirage.

    The big stick is held firmly by the 11 member a-ka-la or NDSC (National Defense and Security Council) with its token genuine civilian member the VP Dr Sai Mauk Hkam being used effectively in high profile opening various ceremonies and new bridges.

    Meanwhile the war with the KIA rages on, and the ceasefire agreements not adhered to by the frontline troops; the dispatch rider apparently has yet to reach them. Persecution of dissident monks, land confiscation by the crony capitalist robber barons and the appalling wages and working conditions in the SEZs such as Hlaing Thayar also continue.

    Their pressing concern remains touting for Western business, partly to reduce dependence on China but mainly to further enrich themselves and renew their stranglehold on the nation’s economic and political life. They have made tremendous political capital out of the suspension of the Irrawaddy Myitsone dam project, more recently the Dawei coal fired power plant project, probably a clever trade off to keep the Shwe Gas project, with its access to the Indian Ocean, far more crucial to China than the dam (there are other dams along all the major rivers planned of course).

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