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
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. www.adb.org
ESCAP/ADB/UNDP. Achieving the Millennium Development
Goals in an Era of Global Uncertainty. Asia-Pacific
Regional Report 2009/10. http://www.mdgasiapacific.org/regional-report-2009-10
Karlekar, Hirlanmay, The general in his labyrinth.
Himal Magazine Sept. 2010, p. 21. www.himalmag.com
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. www.usip.org
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. http://www.swp-berlin.org/de/produkte/swp-aktuell/swp-aktuell-detail/article/birmamyanmar-nach-den-wahlen.html