Thant Myint-U: ‘The Number One Challenge is De-Isolation’
By The Irrawaddy 21 February 2016
RANGOON — With a new government still almost six weeks from taking power, The Irrawaddy’s founding editor-in-chief Aung Zaw speaks with author and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust Thant Myint-U on the country’s challenges and economic outlook, the peace process and relations with China. Following is an edited transcript of a longer interview, which can be viewed in full below.
Welcome to The Irrawaddy, Thant Myint-U. We’re very happy to have you here. I’d like to shoot with the first question. As the NLD [National League for Democracy]-led government comes to power in April, I’d like you to share your perspective, your optimism. What are the challenges and opportunities facing the country and the government?
Thank you very much, I’m very happy to be here. I think in general I’m very optimistic. We all know the challenges: The transition to democracy is at best half-finished, there’s no agreement on constitutional change, we have major economic challenges, issues from land to electricity to other things related to the growth of the economy. We have very weak institutions.
On the other hand, I think what unites almost everyone in this country, 99 percent of the people in this country, is that there is a desperate desire to catch up with the rest of the region. And I can feel from everyone, from very top to ordinary people, that they don’t want to remain the poorest country in the region. They want to see growth, they want to see economic change, and they want to see it in some kind of freer country and, if possible, a more democratic country. And I think that energy is what’s going to animate a lot of what comes next… We know more or less what the prescription is, and we’ve seen so many other successful transitions to democracy as well.
Before we talk about this “prescription,” I’d like to hear your opinion on the reform process, because there has been renewed interest in Burma among donors and investors. But how can the country maintain its momentum, attract new foreign investment and donors, and increase its international engagement and image?
I think that even if not much more happened in terms of economic reform and everything else, I think we will still see growth, because we’re moving from a situation of really bad policies to not so bad policies, and usually when that happens, you see explosive growth. It’s just because people suddenly have electricity, people have a solar panel, people have a motorbike, people have some stability. They can do five times, 10 times more than they could before. So I think just that momentum alone will help improve the livelihoods of a lot of people—not everyone, but a lot of people. I think the question is whether we move from that kind of growth—5 percent, 6 percent—or can we really have the explosive growth of countries like Korea in the 1980s—10, 15 percent. That will require strategic government policies.
We’re talking about the NLD and economic policies, which stay very much vague, but we’re also talking about expectations. It’s very difficult once a government comes to power to manage expectations. There are lots of news articles talking about “high expectations.” But Burmese usually have very modest expectations. That may be a good thing for the new government. But on a business level, for international investors and donors, I think they will have very high expectations.
I think you’re exactly right. Sometimes I think the problem here is people are too patient, and I think people will continue to be quite patient. To some extent, among the top people on different sides of the political establishment, there’s some degree of “we have all the issues right now about the immediate transition,” but in general, there’s a sense of what the way forward is. It’s not like you have royalists on one side and communists on the other. It’s not that kind of huge ideological division that we’ve experienced in this country as well in the past…
Myanmar needs hundreds of billions of dollars to invest in infrastructure. It needs tens of billions of dollars, literally, in foreign investment for the infrastructure it needs for the economy to take off. It has a unique opportunity now to try to attract the investment needs. But again, for those things it needs the institutions that are going to come up with policies.
When you talk about institutions, we have very, very weak institutions. The question is: How can the international community and donors and investors help assist and encourage building stronger institutions in the country?
It has to be demand-driven, not supply-driven. It’s the responsibility of a democratic government to have the policies, have the programs and compel the donors to have their aid fit with that strategy and with that program. It’s not for the donors to decide.
But you don’t want Burma to be aid-driven.
It shouldn’t be aid-driven. Aid is going to be and should only be a small part of the picture. The main thing is how to attract the private investment, and then that donor assistance that might be required in the short or medium term that can complement that assistance… I think in terms of institutions, if you go back to the last democratic period in the 1950s, it was very messy politics. But in the 1950s, we had a Burma civil service, we had a foreign office, we had a Rangoon university, we had a central bank, we had institutions that were some of the best in the region. We don’t have any of those institutions now.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said herself a few weeks ago that peace is the biggest issue that our government will tackle and will try to resolve. Do you think they’re setting a very ambitious look at the peace and conflict issues? Because when we talk about peace, that’s also related to business and industries in neighboring countries that are very influential in domestic politics in Burma’s ethnic conflicts. How do you see this?
On every issue, I think it’s wrong to have an economic prescription that doesn’t first look at the reality of the political economy here—who is making money; how? Unless you have that analysis first, it’s impossible to think about how the economy can change. What I mean is you can’t have people coming in from outside coming up with ideas on what’s worked outside without thinking about how the current system works… That has to be the basis for thinking about how things can change.
U Nu said in 1949 we’ll have peace within one year, so I think there’s always been a hope and an expectation that we will have peace very soon. And I think it’s a noble expectation, and I think it’s a good focus. But I think we have to be clear that peace means different things. One is, peace and reconciliation between the different peoples of the country—linguistically, religiously, ethnically defined. If we move toward a more federal system of government, more local democracy, more equality, less discrimination, a lot of those issues can be, I think, slowly, resolved—a more inclusive civil service, for example, more inclusive institutions in general. That’s slightly different from the question of how to deal with the armed groups, many of whom want those things, but many of whom will also have other aims and ambitions, on a personal level or an institutional level in terms of economic interests, in terms of revenues and everything else.
I think there will be many armed groups who feel that they are legitimately fighting for the self-determination of their people or for non-discrimination. But we all know that in different parts of the country, where you’ve had a war for seven years, you also have an entrenched political economy from which all sides benefit in often illegal ways, corrupt ways…
President Thein took the credit for building peace and signing the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement], but critics have said it’s half-baked success. A Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-government will carry the torch, I believe, and I don’t think they want to reset this whole issue; they will continue to proceed. But I think [the new government’s] approach will be very much different.
I think that because there’s this NCA framework, this very broad framework, you can read many different things into it, you can take it down very many different paths. I think there’s going to be a lot of both the kind of homework I mentioned, but also I think we need a lot of out-of-the box thinking. We don’t need the kind of peace deal that wouldn’t work in 1949. We need the kind of peace deal that’s going to work in 2020 or 2030.
If you look at the past and the history of our country, particularly those in the north have never been governed. We talk about federalism and a federal union, but the “hill people” are still very resentful toward this “Burmanization” and the army playing a very dominant role.
At the national level I mentioned the issues of inclusivity, of non-discrimination, of equality. At the local level, it has to be some degree of local democracy. People have to feel that they’re governing themselves or at least that people from another part of the country aren’t coming in and governing them. There are issues of state-building, building basic state capacity, but there hasn’t been state capacity ever, even in British time…
In a way, one could argue, why not have the most liberal approach, why not give everyone autonomy, why not give maximum autonomy and let people govern themselves all the way down to the village level? And I think it makes a lot of sense up to a point. But when you factor in that we’re still a relatively small country, where what defines being Burmese is partly that we’re not of India or China, then it becomes a much more complicated calculation to think about…
The important thing to think about is, what can meaningfully be achieved in five years? And I think at least no violence is one thing. That alone benefits a lot of people who have been subject to violence and displacement over many decades. Basic development—that’s inclusive, that’s not exploitative—that’s actually going to benefit millions of people in conflict-affected areas by building some local institutions and self-government.
Talking about China… Recently you wrote in the Financial Times that Burma should reset its policy, rebalance its policy with China. How do you see an NLD-led government doing that?
First of all, I think it’s good that sanctions have virtually been lifted, that there’s a potential to rebalance relations, that relations with the West are getting better, that relations with Japan are getting deeper. I think there’s absolutely no reason why this country can’t be friends with everyone… China is a very special case, because over the last 20 years China has had a track record that people will judge. China has been involved in projects that have been very unpopular. And many people have a view of China that is often very negative, so that’s a very different case than with any other country.
At the same time, we are next to the greatest industrial revolution in human history. China is an enormous engine, or has been, for global economic growth. China has the tens of billions of dollars that can be invested for the kind of infrastructure investment that this country desperately needs. The question is, how can we fit these two stories together? How can we attract and have the kind of Chinese investment that will actually be good for this country? And that means not simply responding to Chinese requests, whether it’s a dam project or a deep-sea port. It’s for the Burmese side to think through what does it want—does it want one deep-sea port, two, where should it be, does it want railway lines improved, where should it run—and then to ask the Chinese as well as the Japanese as well as the Americans as well as everyone else to invest within a framework that the Burmese people themselves decided democratically and in an informed way.
When we talk about China… I think the conventional wisdom is that China is unhappy with the US coming in, the Western influence. Do you agree with that notion?
Not completely. Because we’ve been so isolated, because we’re so used to no competition over Burma, we see a little bit of competition and we overestimate it sometimes. I don’t have a sense that in Washington or Tokyo or Beijing that they want this to be a point of conflict. There are many other more serious issues strategically. We need to make the case for how Burma can be the place for cooperation between all of these countries… So for Burma, the biggest challenge when we talk about democracy—we think about the economy, we think about the peace process—the number one challenge is de-isolation. It’s been isolated for 40, 50 years on its own and then under sanctions, coming out of this isolation brings so many different challenges. If we go back into the global world and global economy and global society with the kind of narrow nationalisms that have developed in this country over 60, 70 years, we will not succeed.
When we talk about de-isolation, we talk about how Burma looks at itself and the world. If Burma fails to acknowledge its prominence, its strategic location and its potential, I think there’s also a danger in that. Burma will fail. Our No. 1 asset is our geographic location between Asean and China and India—the biggest markets that are growing in the world… Now we have millions of Burmese living in Thailand. We also have hundreds of thousands, millions of Burmese who have relatives in Australia, the UK, America, all these places, for the first time ever. The Burmese are becoming, without knowing it, globalized again in a certain way.
Talking about foreign policy, how do you want to move the country to the next [phase]?
I think in terms of foreign policy, it’s about moving a little bit away from the old, non-aligned approach, which is a little bit defensive, at least since the 1960s, and toward a much more active foreign policy… This country should be much more involved with international issues like climate change, for example, which is going to deeply affect this country more than almost any other country. Our discussions about climate change, international peace and security, health risks like the spread of infectious disease, we should raise our profile on all of these things.