News Roundup – Week 11, 2012

An interesting observation on the negative correlation between a country’s natural resources and the educational achievement of its students. The countries that performed best on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams were the same countries with the fewest natural resources (calculated as the % of GDP).

By, contrast, says Schleicher, “in countries with little in the way of natural resources — Finland, Singapore or Japan — education has strong outcomes and a high status, at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills and that these depend on the quality of education. … Every parent and child in these countries knows that skills will decide the life chances of the child and nothing else is going to rescue them, so they build a whole culture and education system around it.”

Burmese policymakers would do well to take a look at seriously reforming the country’s damaged education system, instead of simply pumping more money into a corrupt system (63% increase in the coming year’s budget). Just look at America: we spend more money per student than most other countries, yet have little to show for it.

Burma studies scholar David Steinberg make a very good point about making scholarly works on Burmese affairs accessible to the Burmese people, through translation efforts.

Many years ago, the U Nu government established Sarpay Beikman, a program to translated self-help works into Burmese for the undereducated population. A noble effort, but it had many problems. A Burma OBOR, however, would be quite different—addressed to the educated and socially aware population that can only get such works if they are smuggled in and often surreptitiously read.

If, as President Thein Sein has instructed, education must be improved, and as plans progress for reforming higher education, the materials produced by a Burma OBOR could be instrumental in improving education on Burmese society and Burma’s foreign relations.

The ministries singled out by the [parliamentary] report were the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Co-operatives, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, the Ministry of Mining and the Ministries of Industry No (1) and No (2).

Little surprise there. Pointing out the obvious, but it’s a start. Seems to me, like a way to shift the blame and attention to certain cliques. Now the government’s Ministry of Mines is suing The Voice, which first published the story. Given that the country’s court system is not independent, I wonder how this story will turn out.

Burma’s multiple exchange rates are on a plan to be unified, the first major effort in 35 years (not counting the failure of FECs). It’s official.

That would be followed over the next 12 months by a managed currency float of the kyat and the introduction of an interbank currency market, which would allow authorities to intervene and influence the rate.

From 2013/14 onwards, Myanmar would aim to “entirely eliminate” the “informal” currency market, the documents said.

I wonder how top government and military officials will change the way they’ve gamed the system for years, by keeping billions of dollars worth of money off the books by using the ‘official rate’  for accounting purposes.

A pretty optimistic take on Burma’s reforms. It’s worth a read even though I think it’s far too early to come to conclusions like lifting sanctions immediately. US and Europe still need leverage, but I do think that increased competition from the West will destroy the monopolistic grip that the country’s few major companies (like the drug-linked Asia World, which builds almost every major road, owns sea ports, operates airports, distributes fuel, etc.) have. But it’s endearing to read that some of the best minds from Burma have returned home.

My Columbia University colleague Ronald Findlay pointed out that one of them, 91-year-old Hla Myint, who had held a professorship at the London School of Economics, was the father of the most successful development strategy ever devised, that of an open economy and export-led growth. That blueprint has been used throughout Asia in recent decades, most notably in China. Now, perhaps, it has finally come home.

This assessment is far more realistic, and probably a view shared by most overseas Burmese.

She added that the reforms had yet to touch upon the military, as the armed forces retain their “extraordinary” status and continue to wield the actual decision-making power. “The reform is in fact a military-led reform without the people’s participation,” she said. Institutions and legislation remained unchanged, she said. “The regime just made some changes to protect its interests.”

I don’t quite agree with the conclusions this man comes to, but I do believe that what he said about Aung San Suu Kyi’s grip on US policymakers is correct. Someone has to say it.

That influence has been felt most dramatically in the U.S. — where Suu Kyi’s voice has singularly and uncritically driven American foreign policy toward Myanmar for two decades. […] When asked if the U.S. would lift sanctions after the upcoming parliamentary by-elections on April 1, McConnell replied, “I think the best arbiter of whether one or more of the sanctions ought to be lifted is Suu Kyi herself. How she feels about the direction of reform will have a lot of influence on us.” In other words: as Suu Kyi goes, so goes American policy.

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