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COVID-19 Response ‘a Chance to Reimagine Myanmar’s Future’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 7 May 2020

It has been more than a month since Myanmar reported its first case of COVID-19, and the pandemic continues to rage across the globe. As a historian, Thant Myint-U believes the world today stands at a turning point, with the apparent triumphs of democracy and capitalism no longer so certain, and the global future looking murkier than it has for decades.

“Myanmar needs to see clearly the ways in which the world is changing and radically rethink its future options,” he said, describing the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to radically reshape Myanmar’s economy in a direction that is good for all its people, including the poorest and most vulnerable.

Recently, Myanmar unveiled an economic relief plan for COVID-19 comprising seven main goals. According to the government, the plan is intended not only “to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, but also to bounce back to strong economic growth as soon as possible.”

In the wake of the release of the relief package, Thant Myint-U took some questions from The Irrawaddy on the plan’s chances of success for helping the country’s economy make a full recovery, and the challenges the government faces in implementing the short-term action plans it contains.

As well as being a historian, Thant Myint-U was chief of policy planning at the UN’s Department of Political Affairs from 2001-2006. During that time he led efforts to understand emerging global threats, including pandemics, and their links to peace and development. His latest book, “The Hidden History of Burma”, was published in 2019.

The Irrawaddy: What is your general assessment of Myanmar’s COVID-19 situation so far?   

Thant Myint-U: So far the health situation seems well under control. No one can say to what extent the virus may have spread beyond the 150 or so confirmed cases. But there’s little sign of a widespread outbreak. That doesn’t mean of course that we should let down our guard. The coming several weeks may be decisive and there’s still very much the prospect of a far worse situation developing in the near future. For now, however, the principal impact on ordinary people has been economic.

As a historian, how do you see the situation shaping up in the future?   

The world is at a turning point. Past certainties, around the triumph of democracy and capitalism, have faded, and the future is perhaps more uncertain that at any time since at least the end of the Cold War. Science and technology are moving forward at a blistering pace, yet we have nothing like the political institutions we need to manage this speed of innovation. We have as well the near-overwhelming challenges of climate change. This pandemic adds yet another layer of uncertainty. Myanmar needs to see clearly the ways in which the world is changing and radically rethink its future options.

In your recent article in ISP you mention three scenarios for Myanmar’s struggle with the disease. Which scenario are we going through now? The third one is quite bleak. Is there any possibility that one will eventuate?  

It’s impossible to say. So much about the virus remains unknown. I think what we can say for certain is that this is a disease that discriminates against old people and people suffering from obesity. Myanmar has a young population with low levels of obesity. Though a vaccine may be years away, over the coming months doctors will understand much better how to treat the disease. What that means is that for the vast majority of people, if they have access to proper medical care, the chance of dying from the coronavirus may become extremely low. But for those over 60 or 65—even with good systems for testing, tracing, etc.—resuming normal life may not be possible for a very long time.

The government recently unveiled its seven-point COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP), worth around US$1.5-2 billion [2.09-2.8 trillion kyats], to rescue the economy and help ordinary people. According to the government, the plan is intended not only “to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, but also to bounce back to strong economic growth as soon as possible.” What do you think of the plan?  

The CERP should be welcomed. It includes many important steps to ensure the stability of the financial sector. It’s right to lower interest rates and interest rates should be lowered further. It’s good that the government is at least looking to Central Bank borrowing to fund new spending. The proposed Asset Management Company could also be important in helping banks at this critical time. Many parts of the [CERP] however remain aspirational, in the sense that the details are yet to be developed. I hope that the next steps will be bolder still, in the direction of far greater public spending—in the many trillions of kyats—both as an emergency response to the current crisis and to lay foundations for a new economy.

The CERP comprises a number of short-term action plans. What will be the main challenges in implementing them?  

The challenge is institutional. The institutions of government evolved in a different age. We need state institutions that can think creatively, absorb a sea of constantly shifting information, and make rapid decisions, changing them, quickly, as necessary. Finding funding is not the problem. Myanmar must move away from a conservative fiscal and monetary policy. We are entering a deflationary world. Central Bank borrowing will not have the same negative consequences as it might have outside of this emergency. We have a unique opportunity now to spend, but that means spending strategically, not just to meet this emergency, but for the long-term future.

You said the crisis is an opportunity to radically reshape Myanmar’s economy in a direction that is good for all of its people, including the poorest and most vulnerable. Do you see any possibilities in the CERP to make this happen?

Absolutely. The CERP sets out measures, such as direct cash transfers to ordinary people, that I hope will be implemented as soon as possible and in an ambitious way. Millions of people are losing their livelihoods. Millions of families are losing the income they would have received from migrant workers in Thailand and elsewhere. We all know that in Myanmar over these past decades poor people have suffered one terrible turn of fate after another. Many have less than nothing: their families have lost their land, village social structures have collapsed, there is no social safety net, and they are in debt, borrowing money just to feed themselves and their children. A minority are living in areas close to armed conflicts. And now they’ve lost whatever job that might have made them a few thousand kyats a day. They don’t need food handouts. They need a new and fairer economic system.

You have also expressed hope that Myanmar’s current economic crisis poses twin opportunities, to lay the foundations for a new welfare state and for a new industrial policy. Do you think the government will grab these opportunities with what they are doing now?

I can only hope so. There can be no democracy with extreme economic inequality. The experiences of people, rich and poor, are now so different that there can be little sense of a shared community. A welfare state—which provides minimum income as well as free health care and a decent education for all—is essential for any democratic transition to be successful. And that welfare state can only be funded by state-led rapid industrial development.

We should: (1) analyze clearly where the world economy will be in two to five years, in particular global supply chains; (2) identify and support sectors in Myanmar that might grow the fastest in this new environment and create jobs for ordinary people; (3) radically improve public infrastructure, including infrastructure that will help the country prepare for climate change; (4) vastly increase investments in health and education; and (5) take the opportunity to move decisively in the direction of more green and livable cities. The country needs a strategy and we need to get away from the idea that simply setting up free markets and encouraging foreign investment will somehow lead to strategic outcomes. We have an opportunity now to spend trillions of kyats. That means imagining a very different Myanmar in a very different world to come.

Given what you have seen so far, what is your prediction for Myanmar in the post-COVID-19 era?  

We have a unique opportunity now, at a time when the global economy is almost literally paused and will change dramatically, to spend trillions of kyats. This means reimagining the future. This is a country of almost endless potential. But we need bold action to seize that potential. If Myanmar takes advantage of this moment in history, the future can be very bright.

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