Aung San Suu Kyi with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Burma took an unprecedented step toward true, representative democracy during its elections last April. Most notably, the National League for Democracy took the majority of seats in Parliament. The NLD, headed by headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, advocates a non-violent movement towards multiparty democracy in Burma, supports human rights (including broad-based freedom of speech), the rule of law, and national reconciliation. This week, Suu Kyi has venured to Washington, DC to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speak at an award ceremony by the National Endowment for Democracy, and receive her long-delayed Congressional Gold Medal, which she was awarded in absentia in 2008 while under house arrest.
Since the April elections, the Burmese government has made all the right gestures and said all the right things about embarking on a new democratic path for the country. What remains to be seen is whether these promises come to fruition. In the latest Economic Reform Feature Service article, CIPE Asia Program Officer John Morrell takes a look at Burma’s institutional environment and discusses what changes are necessary to sustain successful democratic change.
Article at a glance:
Burma’s transition to democracy will prove unsustainable without substantive changes to the country’s political, administrative, and economic institutions.
Economic growth must be widespread and economic opportunities arise for more than the well-connected few if democracy is to succeed in Burma.
The Burmese government and its partners in the international development community must prioritize the development of durable, reliable and politically independent institutions.
President of Burma U Thein Sein at the US-ASEAN Forum (Photo: The Nation)
In his speech at the July US-ASEAN Business Forum in Siem Reap, Cambodia, U Thein Sein explained that Burma “has embarked on a democratic path” and is “moving toward a new democratic era.” He went on to outline the reform efforts his country is presently undertaking, efforts that give reason for optimism following April’s dramatic electoral victories for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.
In addition to promises of regular and free elections, increased media freedom, and constructive engagement with leaders of ethnic minorities, President Thein Sein announced plans “to transform [Burma’s] centralized economy into a market-oriented economy.” At this same event, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that President Thein Sein is a leader “who has moved his country such a long distance in such a short period of time.”
Moving forward, a successful and sustainable transition in Burma requires that economic growth be widespread and that economic opportunities arise for more than the well-connected few. However, numerous key institutions that are necessary for the realization of this goal are either weak or completely missing in Burma today.
Paramount among these institutions are private property rights and the rule of law. If these institutions, which are fundamental for the development of a market economy, are not substantively reformed and strengthened in Burma, its economic and democratic transition will prove unsustainable.
Is this the beginning of a new Burma? The current government, which was sworn-in earlier this year after the military disbanded its power for the first since 1962, is showing signs of making gradual democratic changes.
On September 30th, President Thein Sein announced to halt construction of the much-anticipated US$3.6 billion Chinese hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River because it was “against the will of the people.”
This decision was surprising not only because Burma turned down a huge economic opportunity with China – the country’s largest foreign investor and a regional superpower – but also because for the first time in years, the government is actually listening to the people. Community activists had been advocating against this project, pointing out that the construction would devastate the ecosystem, displace over 10,000 people, and submerge important cultural heritage sites along Burma’s most important river.
Another indication of reform is the new government’s call for greater media freedom. The head of Burma’s press censorship department remarked in an interview with Radio Free Asia that censorship is incompatible with democratic practices and “should be abolished in the near future.”
Some websites that were previously restricted, including certain Burmese news sites and YouTube, are now accessible. Newspapers are also now allowed to publish reports and photos of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (something that was unthinkable even a year ago).
Of course, a lot more progress must be made in Burma. The junta still heavily influences the government – most of the current cabinet members are former military officers – and it may take years before democratic reforms implemented by the new “civilian administration” will actually crystallize. Yet, Thein Sein’s efforts show that the country is taking steps to reform and move beyond the days of oppression – and the international community should not overlook this.
Reporting from a closed country such as Burma can be a life-or-death business. Yet, despite great personal risk, a group of brave citizens defied the odds to bring the images of their society’s struggles to the outside world. Acclaimed filmmaker Anders Østergaard tells their story in his powerful documentary Burma VJ, screened earlier this week at the National Endowment for Democracy. Winner of over 40 international awards, the film traces the work of Burmese video journalists who, using small handycams and cell phone cameras, have provided invaluable footage of crucial events in Burma to the world. That unique on-the-ground source was particularly invaluable during the information blockade accompanying massive protests of Buddhist monks in 2007. See the trailer here:
they are calling for fresh tactics, from teaching human rights theory to stockpiling arms.
Its a dual approach full of contradictions. On the one hand, young monks are increasingly talking about using violence to stand up to oppression – something that goes against the very nature of Buddhism. On the other hand, they are also exploring new ways of reaching out to people, including education on the basics of political theory and human rights.
Whether right or wrong, one thing is certain – young people are shaking things up in seeking new ways to effect change. Lack of youth enthusiasm is not generally a problem – channeling that enthusiasm in a proper direction is a greater challenge.
As China and Myanmar’s (Burma’s) death tolls from the recent calamities continue to climb, Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute offers an interesting perspective on the role that a human hand has in the extent of damage caused by natural disasters. Of course nobody can stop a cyclone or prevent an earthquake. But the high number of casualties in the aftermath of such disasters is at least to some degree man-made.
China’s death toll stands at 41,000 and Burma now has staggering 134,000 people dead or missing. Some part of those figures can obviously be attributed to the shortcomings in the government-managed rescue efforts. But longer-term governmental policies may be as much – if not more – to blame.
The poverty that exposes people to nature’s dangers also kills. And that kind of poverty is no inevitability. It requires a human hand. Back in the early 1950′s, Burma was the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia. But today, after a half-century of socialism and authoritarian rule, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world.
When a regime mows down a gathering of political protestors, we sit up and take notice. But when it actively impoverishes its people with economic policies long ago proven harmful, we’re too willing to see this not as a choice to which men may be held accountable, but as a natural fact, under no one’s control. So it wasn’t fated that tens of thousands of Burmese would have so little shelter from the storm. They could have been richer, safer.
In 1995, an earthquake rocked wealthy Kobe, Japan, ranking as the most expensive natural disaster in history. Yet only 6,400 lives were lost. Compare the Sichuan earthquake. Catastrophe modeling firm AIR estimates total damages will exceed $20 billion, only about one-tenth the economic loss of the Kobe earthquake. But the human toll is over five times greater.
Wilkinson concludes that it’s the economic growth that “creates roofs that don’t blow away, walls that don’t crumble, hospitals to tend the sick, and generators to keep to the ventilators on.” Indeed, having market-oriented policies is key to achieving sustained economic growth. But for the benefits of that growth to reach everybody, sound economic policies are not enough. The institutions of good governance ensuring transparency and accountability in the political as well as economic systems matter as much.
But despite the obvious suffering, massive devastation and pressing need for urgent action, the Burmese authorities were continuing to insist yesterday that everything was under control. On the front page of the New Light of Myanmar – a state-run government publication – was a picture of the Prime Minister, Thein Sein, handing over 20 television sets and 10 DVD players as part of the “relief” operation.
The sad part is that…
…[t]his, in a region where there has been no electricity since the 130mph storm struck.
“We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was a gift from them, and then distributing it in their region,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country.
So the propaganda machine may succeed in making it seem like things are not too bad and that the government is the one successfully driving the relief effort without much help from outside. Or it may not. If the history has taught us anything, is that sweeping your problems under the carpet does not work – sooner or later you’ll have to face them. As the situation gets more pressing, I wonder if the images of “generals parading though neat refugee tentsites” will continue to cut it for the citizens.
The CIPE Development Blog provides coverage of the Center for International Private Enterprise and its partner network at work -- highlighting successes, drawing out lessons from failure, and exploring the broader issues of political and economic development. For more information visit CIPE.org.