March 30, 2016 as told by Burmese newspapers

March 30, 2016 will be judged by the historians of tomorrow as a significant day for the Burmese people, a day that embodied recent developments in Burma’s political landscape, a day that culminated with the swearing in ceremony of U Htin Kyaw as the country’s new president, the country’s first civilian president in 54 years.

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U Htin Kyaw’s inaugural cabinet: a demographic profile

The morning of March 22, to much anticipation, U Htin Kyaw publicly submitted a shortlist of 18 nominees for ministerial portfolios in his new cabinet, giving the world a glimpse into both how NLD intends to run the civilian government and how the military intends to run ministries under its control. Here’s a closer look at this select group of individuals. Continue reading

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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Union Solidarity and Development Party slogan

A sarcastic take on USDP campaign slogans

With the 2015 election campaign in full swing, Burmese Facebook users have spared no time in creating political memes in time for November.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), established by the military and its close associates in the lead-up to the 2011 election, has especially been hit hard, with a barrage of criticism online by users, in the form of GIFs, image memes and other comments. There’s no doubt that the USDP suffers from a tremendous image problem, because its leadership is largely composed of the same circles that ran the former military junta. Many liken it to a revolving door.

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Is democracy what Burma really needs?

Just Google “broken congress” (or “dysfunctional congress”) and you’ll be greeted by hundreds upon hundreds of articles heralding the demise of American democracy. It’s no surprise–Americans have a lower rating of Congress than of any other branch in government. And the average American, myself included, feel more and more powerless, more and more disenfranchised, to change a system where the odds are stacked against our favor.

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Header of Membership of the Pyithu Hluttaw: A Demographic Profile

Membership of the Pyithu Hluttaw: A Demographic Profile

Since the election of the 330 odd Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly) representatives (MP’s) two years ago, I haven’t seen much in the actual composition of Burma’s lower house, a look at the members’ demographic data, aside from their party affiliation. Fortunately, the Pyithu Hluttaw website (pyithuhluttaw.gov.mm) now has biodata for all 314 of the sitting Pyithu Hluttaw MP’s.

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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?

Grumbles.