Over the past year I have worked alongside indigenous ethnic communities from Burma who fled mass atrocities committed by the central government and military. Despite violence and repression, these communities have built up incredible civil society organizations, and are tirelessly advocating for peace, justice, and human rights. But the international community is not listening. When foreign experts come to Burma, they usually focus on only one thing: foreign investment. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama is only the most recent in a long line of academics, development professionals, and ambassadors to ignore the calls of ethnic activists in order to promote neoliberal economic policies as the cure for Burma’s failing transition to democracy.
In an interview published earlier this month by The Irrawaddy, Professor Fukuyama remarked that economic reforms should be prioritized over seeking justice for past abuses. While this approach may jive with zoomed-out political science models of democratic transition, it is utterly inconsistent with the needs of Burma’s war-torn ethnic communities. Fukuyama seems to be forgetting that violent conflict in Burma is far from over. Just before Fukuyama’s visit, the Myanmar Peace Monitor reported 31 armed clashes and more than 2,000 new internally displaced persons in the month of July alone, despite the government’s purported commitment to pursue a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA). These ethnic communities—who have endured torched villages, rape, forced labor, and arbitrary killings at the hands of Burma’s military—deserve genuine peace and for perpetrators to be held accountable for war crimes.
That is why ethnic civil society activists are so urgently calling for peace and justice in Burma—to end the suffering and begin the healing process for millions of refugees and conflict-affected people. Fukuyama seems to be telling these activists to cool it and wait quietly while economic reforms take hold. Meanwhile, Burma’s military continues to undermine the peace process and launch massive military offensives, often targeting civilians, in Kachin, Shan, and Karen states.
Even worse, the economic reforms Fukuyama so eagerly recommends would only serve to further enrich the generals and cronies responsible for mass atrocities and human rights violations, and entrench the centralized control of a deeply undemocratic government. But he does present a convenient way to root out the cronies: investment from a company like General Motors. According to his analysis, foreign investment, specifically competition from American companies, will magically force the cronies to fold, leading to economic growth which will then lead to democracy. However, Fukuyama has grossly misinterpreted Burma’s crony-capitalist system. It’s not that military cronies operate specific sectors (i.e. the auto industry)—it’s that they control the entire economy. And as Coca Cola recently found out when its links to the notorious jade business were revealed, no matter how much “due diligence” is done for business in Burma, enriching a crony is inevitable.
Let’s imagine an American company comes to open a factory in Burma. Their executives might fly there on Air Bagan, originally owned by blacklisted crony Tay Za. They’ll arrive at the new international terminal and purchase an office block at Hledan Center, both constructed and operated by Asia World, a crony company founded by one of Burma’s most notorious drug kingpins Lo Hsing Han. They might buy land that was confiscated from villagers by KMA Group, and use Max Myanmar cement to build their factory, profiting regime favorites Khin Maung Aye and Zaw Zaw. They might have no choice but to purchase electricity produced by a dam that flooded the homes of thousands of villagers without their consent, built by crony company IGE (a firm run by the sons of the late industry minister and alleged Depayin massacre mastermind Aung Thaung). Burma’s cronies aren’t afraid of foreign investment; they’ve been planning for it, knowing it will line their pockets with American cash.
Perhaps most troubling is Fukuyama’s recommendation that Burma needs a technocratic brains trust to design its economic reforms, inspired by the Berkeley Mafia in Indonesia and the Chicago Boys in Chile. The privatization, deregulation, and liberalization policies of the Chicago Boys and Berkeley Mafia may have spurred “economic growth”, but they also propped up the brutal Pinochet and Suharto regimes. Their failed neoliberal policies led to ongoing rampant, unsustainable natural resource extraction in both Chile and Indonesia, causing devastating environmental damage and dispossessing indigenous peoples from their land and livelihoods.
Is Fukuyama really suggesting that Burma should emulate this model? If so, the country stands poised to make the same mistakes, welcoming a flood of foreign investment and resource extraction, without adequate safeguards for the environment or human rights. Burma’s indigenous peoples are already being forcefully displaced from their land by foreign investment in palm oil, rubber, dams, roads, mines, and industrial zones—all in the name of economic growth. And without political agreements between the government and ethnic groups for how decision-making power and the benefits of development will be shared under a decentralized, federal system, increased foreign investment is likely to derail the fragile peace process and lead to more violent conflict.
Fukuyama’s recommendations for Burma—holding off on justice, increasing foreign investment, and recruiting a neoliberal brains trust—are packaged as a prescription for achieving a liberal democracy, but are actually only the key ingredients for a liberal economy. Economic growth might bring some benefits for the people of Burma, but not before a full peace agreement is reached, ethnic grievances resolved through political dialogue, human rights and environmental safeguards implemented in policy and practice, and justice achieved for conflict-affected communities. If foreign investment continues without these crucial steps, it will only exacerbate poverty, displacement, environmental destruction, and conflict, further stalling Burma’s tenuous path to democracy.
Fukuyama himself admits he is not very knowledgeable about Burma, and he is just one of many influential figures touting foreign investment as the key to the country’s transition. Those who wish to see meaningful change in Burma would do well to cut through this brand of obsolete neoliberal rhetoric, and instead listen to the voices of local people who have suffered for so long. After all, true democracy in Burma will only come from the people, not from the military-controlled government. And the people of Burma are urgently calling for peace and justice—only then can they begin to build a sustainable and inclusive economy.
Jared Naimark is an International Public Service Fellow from Stanford University working for human rights and environmental justice in Burma.