Reforms for Whom?

political opening

There are more magazines and journals under the reforms, but citizens are still waiting for good news in the form of concrete improvements to their lives. (Photo: Reuters)

More than three years have passed since Myanmar embarked on a series of reforms that many foreign observers hailed as the start of a new democratic era. For most people inside the country, however, the signs of change have been far less dramatic.

Ask the average person in Yangon or any other part of the country if their life has improved since the current quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011, and their response will likely be ambivalent at best.

Yes, they might say, there are more newspapers for sale now. But if you read them, what will you find? War still raging in the north, sectarian violence on the rise, journalists and protesters getting locked up—the same old story.

How about the economy? Doesn’t that look more promising than before?

Yes, if you were rich to begin with. But if you were poor before, you are still poor today—maybe even poorer, because even if the standard of living hasn’t risen, the cost of living certainly has.

Perhaps these are early days, and things really will pick up dramatically in the long run. But if you were to listen to many of Myanmar’s newfound foreign friends, you would think that the country has already taken great strides, and that the Golden Land gold rush can only continue apace.

For many, resource-rich Myanmar, with its vast pool of cheap labor and seemingly unlimited potential for development, is simply too good to pass up. Add to this the fact that it occupies a strategically important corner of Asia, at the crossroads of India, China and Southeast Asia, and you can soon understand why foreigners are so keen to increase their influence here.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Even when it was a pariah to much of the rest of the world, Myanmar was an attractive place for investors and governments from neighboring nations. Now, however, it’s not just a handful of countries vying for a piece of the action, but a whole world of well-wishers with dollar signs in their eyes, looking to pull Myanmar into their orbits.

It was the United States that opened the floodgates when, in November 2011, President Barack Obama sent his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for a historic visit that signaled the end of Myanmar’s long era of isolation from the West. But even before then, some countries—notably Norway and several European Union nations—were moving closer to engagement with a regime that many critics considered beyond redemption after decades of human rights abuses and disastrous mismanagement of the economy.

Norway always seemed an unlikely advocate for closer relations with the junta, given its history of supporting the pro-democracy movement. By bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize upon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the figurehead of the movement, the Norwegian Nobel Committee raised her stature to that of an international icon. And by funding and hosting the Democratic Voice of Burma, Oslo put itself firmly on the side of those seeking democratic reforms inside Myanmar.

All of this began to change in the late 2000s, when Oslo decided it was time to change its tack and begin putting more emphasis on economic engagement and stop urging Norwegian companies to refrain from trade and investment in Myanmar.

In due course, Norway’s controversial gamble on engagement paid off, both in terms of reforms (which one Norwegian diplomat haughtily informed me Oslo had “foreseen”) and in terms of lucrative contracts with Myanmar’s self-styled “reformist” government (including a license for Norwegian multinational Telenor to develop Asia’s last frontier in mobile and Internet expansion, and another for Norwegian state-owned firm Statoil to explore one of Myanmar’s most promising offshore oil and gas blocks).

Now Norway and many other countries—from Australia to the United States, and Germany to Japan—are so heavily invested in this reform success story that nobody wants to hear that it is still far from clear whether Myanmar is really moving in the right direction.

Perhaps from a distance, such doubts seem unwarranted. But until the people of Myanmar can begin to feel that they are the true beneficiaries of their country’s supposed “reforms,” foreigners who have done well off of the government’s newfound openness should probably keep their self-congratulations to themselves.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in- chief of The Irrawaddy. This viewpoint first appeared in the June 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

7 Responses to Reforms for Whom?

  1. I don’t understand why everyone assumes that if ASSK becomes president, the reforms will move at a faster pace, the country would improve drastically??? she has no proven track record…

    • One step at a time they say, and a Daw Suu presidency would be a great improvement over this one that pays lip service, goes through the motions and achieves very little for the people.

      Even this step now seems like a pipe dream, amid warnings and intimidation from the electoral commission chaired by yet another former general, as the military is busy preparing yet another one of their own frontmen Min Aung Hlaing. Also PR is coming back as another electoral mechanism to ensure the USDP still has members in parliament to vote with the 25% already with a veto.

  2. Well done, Aung Zaw. You hit it on the nail.

    The 18th century Anglo-French rivalry over a resource rich land between British India and Indochina has given way to the 21st century US/EU-Chinese/Russian rivalry. The difference is that the overarching interests of the New World Order of which they are all fully paid up members have inevitably gained the upper hand. Because? TINA – THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE as the Iron Lady once famously said.

    We are basically a sizable market to be exploited. The rest is more window dressing as soon as they have successfully put up a democratic façade. We are now supposed to congratulate ourselves for becoming a semi/pseudo democracy like the rest of ASEAN, say a great example like Thailand. As far as the domestic and global elite are concerned it’s mission accomplished.

  3. Everyone who is not so dumb can tell that Myanmar is open to drug lords, cronies, military idiots and foreigners. Ordinary people are pressed hard and their daily incomes cannot match their daily basic expenses. Nyan Tun said that Ks. 2000 a day is decent income. It difficult to understand how Nyan Tun calculated the math. People who were above the law in the past are still above the law. Rule of law will never be in the land if these crooks are on the throne. Lawless people cannot enforce the law. Saying to the public, “Don’t do as I do, just do as I say” will not work. In short, the cornerstone Than Shwe laid to build the Union is muddy foundation. How can we build a real building on muddy foundation? Constitution must be rewritten or amended almost every single chapter.

  4. Burma is still a feudal oligarchy. What Burma needs is some kind of French Revolution. Just talking about the Rule of Law doesn’t help in a country where the rich upper-class is corrupt and works on medieval principles of intrigues, nepotism, coercion, patronage and “guanxi” (connections: who’s your daddy type of thing!)
    The poor peasants and workers of Burma have to learn to take matters in their own hands and not trust or even worship some kind of “saviour” (min-laung) a false idol or a fake icon (Suu Kyi is not the only one, Wirathu is another).
    Power to the People!

  5. Sincerity, transparency and conviction for reform process is simply not there. As election approaches, true color is surfacing. Granted, we need positive input from all sides is to have a sucessful run,In our case a complete overhau is necessary. Like buildings, some can be renovated, others had to be torn down. We are in the latter category. Results are important, but endeavour has to be honoured and recognised. My salute goes out to ASSK, Wirathu, Min Ko Naing and others. Being in uniform is tough. You can lose your career and your life very quickly, one way or the other- bullet, injection or accidents.
    What and how ASSK is doing s the least expensive and possibly a bloodless transformation toward liberation. Please trust her and understand her.It is impossible for her to explain why and how certain speech and action were taken.

  6. The first wave of valtures to wipe out Burmese resources were ASEAN countries during 1990-2010. It seems the greater valtures such as European countires and USA are missing out. They learned that preaching democracy and human rights to the military general are something like talking to the brick wall. In the end, they ( greater valtures ) decided to dig in in the Thein Sein era.Am I too pessimistic?

    The ideal should be having a good governance with representative dmocracy and inviting transperant foreign investment to develop the country.

    Burmese are losing opportunity not once, not twice but several times. Your life vest is under your seat!!

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