Some thoughts on the politics of economic inequality

The ironic tragedy is that while Burma’s economic system has been decimated by decades of sustained political mismanagement, the country’s education system has also produced some of the world’s most prominent and influential economists, including Hla Myint*, Ezra Solomon*, and Ronald Findlay*, all of whom were educated at Rangoon University. (All subsequently established academic careers outside the country, at world-class institutions like London School of Economics, Stanford University and Columbia University.)

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Burma's generosity in comparison with the rest of Asia.

Misguided generosity: should the Burmese donate differently?

Recent headlines have crowned Burma the world’s most generous country, a ranking shared with the United States. According to the Charitable Aid Foundation America’s 2014 World Giving Index, the world’s biggest economy and one of Asia’s most undeveloped countries have something positive in common for once. And a point of pride is that this is unsurprising, Just a validation, if anything. Continue reading

Where does Burma stand in ASEAN? – economy edition

As ASEAN presses forward with economic integration, targeted for 2015, there’s been a surge of interest, especially among the younger generation, to establish a pan-ethnic, pan-national identity. Just the other day, I watched a Thai music video with Thai artists singing in all of the ASEAN national languages (the Burmese was incomprehensible). My misgivings about the ASEAN Economic Community aside, I found a series of interesting glossy infographics (full report here) comparing different metrics, both social and economic, (everything from milk consumption to effective tax rates) among the ASEAN countries.

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"Connecting Myanmar" Interview Subjects

8 Ericsson-produced shorts on Burma

In April this year, Norwegian telecoms company Telenor signed a 5-year contract with Ericsson, a Swedish telecommunications equipment firm, as Telenor’s network distribution supplier and for multivendor managed services (link). Earlier in January, Telenor was one of two foreign companies (the other being Ooredoo) awarded with highly coveted government licenses to operate communications networks throughout Burma (link).  Telenor is reportedly building a 2G and 3G network to cover 90% of the country’s population (link).

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A taste of what’s ahead?

The other day, I watched a fascinating documentary, No place like home, on Al Jazeera’s 101 East about Cambodia’s growing pains, as development speeds up, often at the expense of the people.

Odds are, this is simply a taste of what Burma will face as investment in the country accelerates. News of land confiscation by huge conglomerates (Yuzana, Zaykabar, just to name a few) are (and have been) a dime a dozen for a long time. In fact, Zaykabar’s CEO, Khin Shwe, is sitting as a member of parliament.

Burma’s huge conglomerates remind me of the chaebols in South Korea (like Samsung and LG), because they curried privileges in the formative years to consolidate power and influence. Except in South Korea’s case, chaebols focused on intense manufacturing, whereas Burma’s ‘crony companies’ are focused on extractive industries (gas and gems). But all the same, they’re extending their reach to become jacks of all trades. For instance, 7-Eleven is partnering with Zaykabar to open stores throughout Burma.

Burma can learn from the mistakes of its peers in Southeast Asia, but it will be an uphill battle given the circumstances and conditions on the ground.

Burma simply doesn’t have the capacity or transparency to resolve many of these development issues. The government is focused on PR and cosmetic changes instead of addressing the causes. The national government has little power at the local level, meaning whatever lofty ideas it iterates to press and at parliament never see light. Any laws that attempt to address land usage and land ownership will fail because courts aren’t adequately buffered from influence that weakens their legitimacy. And accountability is just a buzzword.

It’s a sad and vicious cycle that I predict will pan out in more painful ways than one, as Burma gears up for the 2015 election.

A plan of the proposed Hanthawaddy Intl. Airport

In similar news, government officials announced plans to resurrect a project to construct an international airport midway between Pegu (Bago) and Rangoon, in anticipation of growing tourist numbers:

The Hanthawaddy International Airport project, located on a 9000-acre (3642-hectare) site about 77 kilometres (48 miles) north of Yangon near Bago, was first slated for development in the early 1990s. Work began in March 1994 but ceased in October 2003.

All this makes me question the government’s priorities. With an education system in shambles, mass underemployment, continued ethnic conflicts, and deep poverty, the government seems to be preparing itself for a cosmetic change to welcome tourist pockets, well-lined with cash.

This piece, comparing Burma’s and China’s approach to foreign investment, does give me the impression that some policymakers are trying to take a slow growth approach, to allow the country’s civilian institutions to mature before foreign investment picks up pace:

…the current steps show an extreme level of caution. This can be seen in two ways. First, unlike the current situation in China, foreign invested enterprises are treated dramatically differently than domestic enterprises. For example, a foreign invested enterprise cannot lease a building for a period greater than one year. For longer periods, foreign invested enterprises must rent land and build the related buildings at their own expense. The resulting lease is limited to an overall term of 60 years, at which time the building and land revert back to the government. Second, all foreign investment projects must be approved by the central government. Local governments are not permitted to grant such approvals. Many business terms such as the price of leased land must be approved by the central government, preventing private business people from negotiating their own terms.

However, it seems like a leap to say that this is to benefit the country’s people:

The central theme is that the government desires to increase GDP and to allow the benefits of such increase to accrue to the people rather than to government officials. Though FDI will be a part of such GDP growth, the government is still concerned about preventing foreign investors from obtaining an unfair advantage over the local people. For this reason, the government still insists on restrictive terms for foreign investment and still insists on remaining actively involved in investment decisions to “protect” the people and the assets of the country.

Protecting which subset of people? The poor masses or a select elite of cronies to allow them to secure a place in the country’s new order since they cannot compete with international firms?


A touchy subject: Burma’s sex tourism industry

A 1955 comic by Burmese cartoonist Ba Galay discussing 4 kinds of prostitutes.
Upper left: Prostitute who joins because of economic hardship (စီးပွားပျက်လို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူ)
Upper right: Prostitute who joins because of stress/unhappiness (စိတ်ညစ်လို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူ)
Bottom left: It is easy to rescue prostitute who joins because of bad acquaintances, but... (အပေါင်းမကောင်းလို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူတွေကို ကယ်တင်ဘို့လွယ်ကူပေမဲ့)
Bottom right: prostitutes who join because they're sexually promiscuous experience many diffculties. (ကာမသောင်းကျန်းလို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူကြတော့ အခုလိုအခက်အခဲများတွေ့တတ်သည်။)

Lately, I’ve noticed a crop of news articles and opinion pieces pop up about Burma’s sex tourism industry. It’s no surprise that Burma has a burgeoning sex tourism industry, targeted toward expatriates and foreigners, especially after the country loosened its strict visa policies in the 1990s (from 1964 to the 1970s, most visas were limited to 24 hours and until the 1990s, to 7 days). Not to mention Burma also has one of Asia’s highest HIV prevalence rates (among Burmese sex workers, the prevalence rate is a whopping 30-70%), and is the country of origin for a lot of Thailand’s foreign sex workers.

Prostitution, despite its undesirable nature, will never disappear. Thus, it’s in the government’s best interests to regulate the industry (commonly in the guise of massage parlors, beauty parlors and KTV lounges), especially given that sex workers are primary vectors for STIs and commonly victims of exploitation and abuse. However, I don’t know what to feel about legitimizing this profession, especially in a country like Burma. But this issue must be snipped at the bud, before Burma solidifies its reputation as a sex tourism destination.

The Burmese language has an abundance of slang words for prostitutes (some I’ve never heard, until I read this paper), a lot of them introduced during the Japanese occupation:

  • Formal: ပြည့်တန်ဆာ (pyeitaza)
  • Informal: ဖာ၊ ဖာမ (pha/pha ma, ‘basket’), ကြက်၊ ကြက်မ (kyet/kyet ma, ‘chicken’), ပခြုပ်သည် (pachok the, ‘basketweaver’), (nat thami, ‘angel’), ဇိမ်မ (zein ma, ‘comfort woman’), ညဉ့်ငှက် (nye hnget, ‘night bird’), ညမွှေးပန်း (nya hmwei pan, ‘fragrant night flower’), အပြာမယ် (apya me, ‘blue/porn mistress’)

Talk about sex tourism has grown especially as the country is actively seeking Western investment. There are many Burmese who argue that opening up the country has ushered in khit pyet (ခေတ်ပျက်), literally a “broken era.” And many fear Burma will follow Thailand’s model (read this Irrawaddy opinion piece). Just skimming the comments, I can tell there are many Burmese puritans want to turn a blind eye to this problem.

But what many don’t realize is that prostitution was relatively prevalent in colonial times and even in the post-independence era following 1948. After the Great Depression, Burma had the largest prostitution industry in British India:

In all likelihood, one of the occupations to which such displaced women turned to alleviate the adverse ramifications of the Depression was prostitution, the scale of which in Burma was described by a 1916 report as the largest in British India. It is conceivable that the Depression thus had the effect of making more Burmese women more easily sexually available to foreign men, especially if in the 1930s, as in the 1910s, the clients of brothels in Burma were predominantly British troops and sepoys from the Indian subcontinent.
– “The Modern Burmese Woman and the Politics of Fashion in Colonial Burma” (link)*

The Brits also imposed a screening process for prostitutes to monitor for STIs.

This Reuters article, written by Soe Zeya Tun, summarizes some of the latest buzz about the costs of tourism. I definitely know some overseas Burmese women who don’t allow their husbands  to return to Burma by themselves, because prostitutes are a dime a dozen, especially if you look in the right places.

Recently, in Feb. of this year, a Japanese man was caught on CCTV slapping a Burmese hotel employee (at Rangoon’s Orchid Hotel) because the employee didn’t allow him to bring a female guest into his room, per hotel policy. The footage is available below (she’s physically assaulted at 3:00):

What’s noteworthy is that this seemingly innocuous case highlights the prevalence of sex work in Burma. The Japanese man was most likely bringing in a female guest with the intention of having sex with her. (Apparently the slapped employee is facing a lawsuit now as well).

In this interview with Andrea Valentin, founder of a Burmese tourism NGO, Tourism Transparency, she makes some interesting observations about how Burmese society is complicit in hiding this issue:

Q: A most concerning issue is that Burma is now experiencing the spread of sex tourism, as you also mentioned in your article. What lessons can Burma learn from its neighboring countries Thailand and Cambodia?

A: I’m glad you asked this question. The spread of sex tourism is my biggest concern for the future [in Burma].

The lessons to learn are pretty straightforward: if Burma wants to have more prostitutes than monks in the country, then they should follow Thailand’s tourism development approach. Hopefully Burma will want to avoid Cambodia’s 30,000 children involved in sex tourism, some of who are as young as five.

The recent case of a Japanese man slapping a staff member of the Orchid Hotel is quite telling of a dilemma I observed in Burma: the slapping caught on video drew much criticism and outraged many people. But surprisingly few people lamented the fact that the Japanese man was a sex tourist. Most focused on the outrageousness of the act, not the wider issue of sex tourism.

In a conservative country like Burma, where sexual activity is seen as a very private matter, the sad truth is that it won’t be too difficult to develop a thriving sex tourism industry. Sex tourism brings in foreign currency and generates revenues, and local communities are reluctant to act or intervene in this taboo, making women and children far more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

A short anecdote on a Burmese prostitute who works in Rangoon, primarily serving foreign clients:

20-year-old Ma Aye Aye describes her experience of working as a prostitute in one of YGN’s recently opened nightclubs, where she is paired with Thai, French, Malaysian and Chinese customers who pay her between $40-100 USD as a tip, on top of the 2,000 kyat (~$12 USD in 1997) she was paid by the pimp. This job is a new one for her, as until a few months ago she was supporting her child by having intercourse with 10 to 12 men everyday in Nyaungbintha.
Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear, p. 198

Undoubtedly, the biggest draws to this industry is the money, especially given that unemployment and poverty are rife in Burma. I suspect that most  prostitutes in Burma, especially in the cities, become prostitutes by choice and its recruits tend to be from poorer towns or outlying suburbs. In my last visit to Burma, in 2009, I noticed that Burmese-Western pairings were on the rise, especially in hotel lobbies at night. Also, there were more KTV lounges and nightclubs (Burmese language news report here), especially in Chinatown.

In 1940, Thein Pe Myint suggested recommendations in his book Tet Khit Nat So (တက်ခေဆ်နတ်ဆိုး, available for download here), progressive even by today’s standards, which seem ever relevant today:

  • issue licenses to prostitutes
  • register brothels in special zones
  • tax prostitutes
  • regulate trade with compulsory STI screenings
  • increase state budge for STI centers

Sadly, addressing these complex issues is contingent on a government with a pretty dismal track record by all accounts.

* Sorry, these articles may be locked for general readers without academic access. I’ve been taking advantage of my University affiliation to read up on papers regarding this topic. (I wish I could simply post the papers themselves, because they’re worth the read, but I don’t want to be caught with substantial copyright fines.)

“Twenty painful years”

Once supported as the rightful government, after its ignored election victory in 1990, the League is increasingly seen as ineffective and irrelevant, with policies that do more harm than good. A guesthouse owner says economic sanctions, which the League supports, are “killing us”. The League, he says, are “just another bunch of politicians”. A few even grumble about Miss Suu Kyi herself. One critic says she “has lost touch with the suffering of the people”. Even some who helped found the party are disillusioned. A veteran of the 1988 movement admits that the League has “not met the expectation of the people”.
–“Twenty painful years,” The Economist (link)

The Burmese government’s response to ongoing protests

The large-scale and unabated protests in Burma have probably caught many people by surprise. Led by angry young Buddhist monks who wanted an apology from the government for the abusive treatment of fellow monks who protested in Pakokku. The government has yet to stop these the majority of these protests–tear gas was thrown at monks in Sittwe (Akyab) in Arakan State, but aside from that, there has been little violence. The government’s current plan of action seems to be counterattacks on the scale of protests and the identity of the monks participating in them. The Burmese government’s English newspaper The New Light of Myanmar called the protesting monks cohorts of the West and claimed they were charlatans. According to news reports from a few small-scale news sources, the government and its civilian bodies (mass organizations) have been dispatching members dressed as monks to discredit the monks in small towns. In one instance, ‘monks’ went into a government-owned co-op store in a small town in Arakan State and wreaked havoc by vandalizing the store. According to its owner, the ‘monks’ appeared to be new faces in town, and according to the abbots of local monasteries, young monks had not been allowed to leave during the time the incidents occurred.

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Continuing Rangoon protests

Rangoon protests thus far
A compiled map of general locations (sorry about the poor quality of the map; I scanned a small map, which shows a general picture of the Rangoon townships rather than all of the streets) where protests in Rangoon have occurred since the increase of gas prices in Burma.

To my amazement, protests calling for an immediate decrease in the prices of gas in Burma have continued, for the second week. There have been incidents throughout Burma, in particular Rangoon, where a junta-funded paramilitary group that calls itself “Swan Arr Shin” (Masters of Force) and Union Solidarity and Development Association members have been dispatched to quell protests and in many instances, use brute force to do so.

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An small act of defiance: Silent protest march in Rangoon

August 20, 2007 protest in Rangoon

Led by the 8888 Generation Students Group, about 500 people marched in protest in Rangoon of increased gas prices, which have affected everything from going to school to buying rice. From

The Asian Tribune reports that 500 people marched from Kokkaing, located north of Rangoon’s downtown to the Kyaukmyone market in a matter of two hours. The purpose: to protest their dissatisfaction of sudden and drastic price hikes in the prices of fuel. The news article reports:

The Group demanded that the military regime tackle the problem of skyrocketing commodity prices and soaring inflation rates. The alleged that sudden unannounced hike of fuel prices also would contribute in a big way economic and social hardships to the people. They also pointed out in their statement that the increase in the price of natural gas, which is abundant in the country, is highly irrational.

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Update: Rising gas prices in Burma

The biggest public news these past few days in Burma have been on the massive increases in petroleum, diesel and compressed natural gas (CNG) prices, which have affected much of urban Burma. Media within Burma have been much quieter. For the Myanmar Times, solar-powered traffic lights were bigger news than the price increases of gas.

If the Burmese were not so patient, there would probably be countrywide protests on this issue (like those in Iran, where thousands rioted in response to gas rationing.) The Irrawaddy has a good photo essay on how locals are struggling in the aftermath of price increases.

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Rising gasoline prices in Burma

In recent days, Burma has increased its prices of diesel fuel, compressed natural gas (CNG) and petroleum have risen substantially. In the case of CNG, which is touted as an alternative fuel source by the government and used in Rangoon buses, prices have tripled, affecting bus fares. The Irrawaddy, in a series of four articles (1, 2, 3, 4), concludes that the rising gas prices are because of economic mismanagement, stagnating stock markets in the Southeast Asian region, and government shortage of foreign currency. The Irrawaddy also notes that the black market foreign exchange rate has increased, from 1280 kyat per US dollar to 1325 kyat per US dollar. Also, the gold prices have increased in the country, probably the result of greater demand (in Burma, gold or foreign dollars are usually preferred for saving money, because Burmese kyat are not stable.

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