Obituary: David Abel, Economics Czar Under Myanmar's Military Regime, Dies

By The Irrawaddy 21 January 2019

David Oliver Abel, a former brigadier general and the economics czar of Myanmar’s military regime in the 1990s, died of heart failure in Yangon on Sunday. He was 84.

Of Anglo-Burman, Indian and Jewish Catholic descent, he was one of only a few non-Buddhists in the military government. Born in Yangon, David Abel was selected to attend the Royal Military Academy, Sand Hurst, in the United Kingdom from 1953 to 1956 and graduated with a degree in economics.

He served in the Myanmar Army in various positions, fought against the Mujahedeen in Rakhine State and against local communist insurgents in northern Shan State. When the military staged a coup in 1988 and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), he was appointed as trade minister in the cabinet.He retired from the Army with the rank of brigadier general while serving as director general of procurement in 1991.

David Abel was at various times minister of commerce, minister of finance and revenue, minister of national planning and economic development and minister of the chairman’s affairs at the State Peace and Development Council. In 1990 he founded Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, one of two major conglomerates run by Myanmar’s military to promote the country’s major industrial sectors and stabilize the national economy. Under his guidance, the country significantly liberalized its international trading relationships from 1989 to 1994.

However, David Abel was said to have displeased the generals by questioning the economic strategies they implemented after the 1997 financial crisis in Asia. Senior General Than Shwe and his deputy, Vice Senior General Maung Aye, disapproved of his statements about opening up Myanmar’s economy. He was disappointed when they blocked his reform efforts at the holding company.

He retired from the government in 2003. But even afterward he was banned from traveling abroad by the military, which worried that the former economic advisor would continue to speak out, possibly about the country’s economic woes or alleged ties between local drug lords and foreign companies.

David Abel’s obituary notice on Monday described him as a brigadier general and ex-minister. He might have risen higher, possibly to lieutenant general, as did some of his SLORC colleagues. Were his bosses displease with his efforts to improve the economy? Did they disapprove of his Christian faith? Only they know.

Correction: The previous version of the story wrongly stated that David Abel was a member of the SLORC. In fact, he was not among the 19 founding members.