Myanmar at a crossroads? Gabriele Köhler

Myanmar is an enigma. Listed in international statistics as the poorest country in Asia and one of the poorest among the world’s 49 least developed countries, and politically ostracised because of its continuous record of human rights violations, the self-imposed insulation and the externally created isolation of the country have resulted in many misconceptions. Even the country’s name is a puzzle – since the military regime changed the name to Myanmar, it is the designation used by the UN and international media. In some ways, despite its association with the military, it is actually a name more reflective of the country’s diverse citizenship than the former name Burma which suggested that the country is comprised merely by the citizens speaking the – majority – Burman language.

A spirit of guarded optimism is palpable at this moment in the country – a hope that Myanmar may be at an albeit fragile crossroads towards at least marginally more democracy and first steps towards more equitable economic and social development and human rights.

How valid and realistic are these expectations? Myanmar presents the researcher and policy analyst with many enigmas, since data are inconsistent. Constructing a picture from a host of sources suggests a country which is more complex and sophisticated than that conveyed by the media and official reports.

To begin with, the economy presents a split picture. Government data claim 12% GDP growth for the past decade – a figure which seems improbable, while IMF or ADB figures of 4-5% real per capita growth may underestimate the economic growth trajectory. Much of the country’s economic activity is not recorded, notably the investment from and exports of natural gas, hydropower, timber, or gemstones to China, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, and India. One segment of the economy is characterised by massive high-tech infrastructure projects such as the new national capital, Naypidhaw, constructed greenfield in the barren centre of the country, several state-of-the-art airports, four-lane national highways, bridges over the Irrawaddy and other streams, and a slew of hydropower dams. On the other hand, 60% of the population subsist on agriculture where no mechanisation or irrigation investment or rural feeder road or footpath development has taken place in decades, there are limited options for diversification, no social protection measures and, and access to credit has only started in the past few months.

Per capita income estimates range from $220 – the UN estimate – to $800, or $1100 in purchasing power parity, presented by local economic analysts. The government-defined poverty line has reportedly decreased to 27%, from 32% in the earlier years of the decade. There are no data on income inequality, but it is obvious even to the casual observer that the disparities are enormous between the military and the emerging class of investors on the one hand who monopolise the large-scale business contracts, and the rural population and the ethnic minority peoples. An estimated 35% of the population reside in the ethnic minority states on Myanmar’s borders with India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand. Estimates on the numbers of informal migrants to Thailand and beyond range from 1 to 2 million persons, with the majority coming from ethnic minority communities and working in Thailand and beyond in unsecured, dangerous, underpaid jobs. An estimated 400 000 men are in the army, 200 000 in the police forces, and another 400 000 in the monkhood; if these figures are correct, this would meant that one million people are ”employed” by these vast formalised institutions.

Overall, Myanmar’s economic policy reminds of development strategies of the 1950s, where prestige infrastructure projects for roads or electricity were the focus of government investment. Investment into agriculture, until recently considered an economic backwater, and into human capital, has been systematically neglected by successive military regimes. However, a generation handover appears to be raising awareness for the need to invest in people and in the rural economy, if Myanmar wants to catch up with the knowledge economy and move up the value chain.

Social development presents another contradictory picture. Taken at face value, and not disaggregated by regions within the country, by ethnicity, or religion, Myanmar appears ”on track” towards achieving some of its targets in the Millennium Development Goals. But as is well-known, the MDGs are unsatisfactory indicators of progress. As elsewhere in Asia, child malnutrition is a huge challenge – according to Unicef data, one third of Myanmar children under 5 are undernourished. Infant and child mortality rates are 71/1000 and 98/1000 respectively, far worse than the rates observed in neighbouring countries. Primary school enrolment is 84 %, but school completion rates, the actual level of knowledge acquired or progression to secondary and tertiary education are dismal – in a country which at independence was a higher education hub for all of southeast Asia.

Indeed, the estimates for government expenditure on health and on education at roughly 1% of GDP each are among the lowest in the world. This means that most health and education expenditures are financed or co-financed privately by out of pocket payments, and these are supplemented by the philanthropy of citizens, international NGOs, selected UN agencies, and the diaspora and people interested in Myanmar, which keep the education and health systems afloat.

Politically, too, the landscape is more complicated than conventionally portrayed: often, it is often simplified as a standoff between the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military. However, there are more dissident groups than the NLD. More than 2000 political prisoners remain incarcerated with no public access, and the numbers of monks and other citizens killed in the 2007 protest movement is not clear. Torture and rape of political prisoners and forced labour are rife. Freedom of the press and freedom of association do not exist; websites with critical information are blocked by the government.

In addition to political opposition to the human rights violations, there is the historically inherited divide between the Burmans who live in the country’s lowlands and the highland ethnic minority groups. Burmans led the independence movement, while the ethnic minorities were conscripted into British colonial forces and were seen to have remained loyal to the British Empire. Moreover, Burmans are in majority Buddhist, while many of the ethnic minorities were Christianised in the colonial period. Of the 25 armed ethnic minority groups, 17 have signed a peace agreement while two have been at war with the government since the 1950s. The minorities continue to enjoy much attention, including ODA from OECD countries and NGOs, and are therefore seen as a foreign-supported threat to national unity which provides the government a pretext for their persecution.

Against this complex backdrop, the Parliament and 14 state legislatures are beginning to convene for the first time in two decades from 31 January. 25 per cent of the Parliamentary seats are military appointees, the other 75 per cent are members elected in the elections in autumn 2010, which were not ”free and fair”, as many citizens were coerced to vote for the military’s National Unity Party. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, did not stand in the elections, as they did not want to legitimise the new constitution nor negate the 1990 election results where they had carried the majority. Other parties did join, some ethnicity based, as well as a political group that left the NLD. Together these will now form a small opposition in the Parliament of about 25 per cent.

The parliament will, in some form, need to decide on crucial questions such as fiscal budget allocations or new legislation. This may be especially so at the state legislature level, where the representatives will be closer to the citizens. This may offer opportunities for accountability and transparency – if only to ensure their re-election in 5 years. The presence of even a small opposition could begin to challenge the political culture of one-man military decision making – and this small opening is what has created the current guarded optimism. Indeed, some observers argue that the absence of the NLD in the parliamentary opposition may turn out to be a missed opportunity for putting their policy alternatives on the discourse table. Draft legislation on freedom of association in formal sector businesses, and on a reform of the social security system, are examples were small socio-economic improvements may become possible.

A linchpin in Myanmar politics – domestically and internationally – are the investment, trade and tourism sanctions imposed, in various formats, for the past two decades by the US and the European Union. They too are an enigma, since other countries with similar human rights violations and dictatorial regimes have not been subjected to such sanctions – China, Egypt, or Vietnam are cases in point. While human rights abuse cannot be weighed against each other, it can nevertheless be argued that the EU and US sanctions, singling out Myanmar, are harming the vulnerable people they are purportedly meant to support, and – inadvertently – playing into the hands of the military and of the economic interests of Myanmar’s powerful neighbours – most significantly China. In the absence of ”Western” investment and ODA, the blocking of exports, and the discouragement of tourism, Myanmar lacks access to diversified sources of technical expertise, to professional differences of opinion, and to critically informed screening processes. The large hydropower schemes and natural and pipelines, for example, are not subjected to any democratic decision making process, the scrutiny of media or civil society, or even to technocratic social or environmental impact screening. ODA from China or India is not guided by the MDG agenda nor human rights or environmental concerns, but by unbridled commercial and resource interests. The forthcoming privatisation of public enterprises will not be able benefit from transparent processes or competition among a range of domestic and foreign investment bids.

The sanctions need to be revisited. It is problematic to lift sanctions in one go, as this could be seen as endorsing the current regime, erroneously signalling that human rights abuses have abated, and may be portrayed as serving another set of vested interests. However, maintaining the sanctions serves the interest of the powerful military and their economic partners, deprives the citizens and critical voices in the country of the international support they so much deserve, and may merely serve to prolong the unjust political, economic and social situation.

In sum, Myanmar is an underestimated economy, and a country seen in a black-white mode, instead of its deep – and troubled – complexity. This means that the people of Myanmar are deprived of opportunities for more diversified sources of livelihoods, and that the all-crucial agenda of human rights is jeopardised. Research on and engagement with Myanmar by the progressive international civil society and academic communities needs to stepped up urgently, if the current ”crossroads” optimism is to usher in rights-based, inclusive human development and social justice.

Sources and references:

Asian Development Bank, Asian Development Outlook. Manila 2010.

ESCAP/ADB/UNDP. Achieving the Millennium Development Goals in an Era of Global Uncertainty. Asia-Pacific Regional Report 2009/10.

Karlekar, Hirlanmay, The general in his labyrinth. Himal Magazine Sept. 2010, p. 21.
Kivimäki, Timo and Paul Pasch, The Dynamics of Conflict in the Multi-ethnic Union of Myanmar. Friedrich Ebert Foundation- Berlin 2009
Rieffel, Lex, The Economy of Burma/Myanmar on the Eve of the 2010 Elections. United States Institute of Peace. Special Report. May 2010. 

Steinberg, David, Burma/Myanmar. What everyone needs to know. Oxford. Oxford University Press 2010

Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps. Histories of Burma. Faber and Faber. London 2007

UNICEF, State of the World’s children. New York 2010.

United Nations General Assembly, Situation of human rights in Myanmar. Note by the Secretary-General.Promotion and protection of human rights situations and reports of special rapporteurs and representativesA/65/368.

Walton, Matthew, Ethnicity, Conflict and History in Burma. The Myth of Panglong. Asian Survey Vol 48.

Will, Gerhard, Birma nach den Wahlen: Gelenkter Systemwandel oder drohender Staatszerfall? Berlin, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. 2011.

* Gabriele Köhler is a development economist based in Munich.