The FINANCIAL -- For most people, the name-change from Burma to Myanmar does not mean
anything. Burma has been in the grip of a dictatorship for 49 years in a
splendid isolation where poverty, corruption and military rule were the
order of the day and where economic sanctions hardly put a dent into
what has been a total economic and human disaster.
But Aung Saan Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and the democracy activist incarcerated in her own home for twenty years is turning the table on the military rulers with a brand of political dynamism which has won her huge praise from leaders in the West and elsewhere.
She is now on a whirlwind of a mission through Europe – from Norway where she received the Nobel Prize awarded to her some 20 years ago, to Oxford University where she received an Honorary doctorate, to being the second woman in history, other than the British Queen herself, to address both houses of Parliament in the Westminster Hall. What she is attempting to achieve for her nation is the fullest support from the West for greater freedom and democracy in Burma and for greater engagement by the West in investing and raising the standards of the poor who have lived without a ray of hope for so many years. Aung Saan Suu Kyi, although the Leader of the Opposition in Government, is being treated as the Head of State, with much adoration from everyone who has known and felt her struggle to lead Burma to a certain level of sanity. She is just one brilliant, passionate and committed woman whose legacy for Burma would be indelibly marked in the history of her nation for generations to come.
Aung Saan Suu Kyi is talking about a “cautious optimism” in Burma evolving into a more free, democratic country and has been advocating a “go-slow” policy by the West in lifting the sanctions against Burma. She wants to ensure that the Burmese government, still very much in the hands of the military, will keep to its pledges and unfreeze all the modalities of keeping people under a tight control and poverty. Without the government being under her control and directions, she is unsure whether the current government will simply take advantage of the lifting of the sanctions and sit back on the reforms which are critically needed.
When one considers that Burma is in fact a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that it is bordered by Thailand, a very vibrant and free country and that it is a Buddhist country founded on the principles of non-violence and peace, it is difficult to understand why and how Burma remained an elusive, controlled and closed nation for so long. It has abundant natural resources of water, forests, minerals, gas and possibly large quantities of oil, but it has been unable to feed its people, with millions of farmers eking out an existence at subsistence level. Burma has been a very primitive nation surrounded by countries which have been posting staggering economic growth. And what is even more difficult to understand is how the Burmese Junta managed to keep the people suppressed for so long, how it plundered the election victory from Aung Saan Suu Kyi two decades ago and put her under house arrest, only to be allowed to move freely some months ago.
The questions now for Burma are about where it will go from here, and what power and influence would Aung Saaan Suu Kyi wield, while being in opposition and while attempting to seek international aid for the development of Burma. Perhaps, in the history of world politics, this is perhaps the first time when an opposition leader assumes the mantle of government leadership and rallies the world to support her nation’s development and coming of age. It is a brilliant strategy not to override the military rulers but to dig deep into the reservoir of international and national good will to ensure that the country lifts economically, step by step, and that people have enough in their bellies to stand up and question the status quo.
There is however a certain momentum in Burma now. Myanmar President Thein Sein wants to triple the nation’s GDP in five years. Since Burma’s growth has been at very low levels, tripling the GDP may sound achievable, although Sean Turnell, a Myanmar economy expert based at Macquarie University in Australia, calls the tripling GDP goal “ambitious to the point of utterly unachievable.”
Thein Sein is a former General in the Burmese Military, but has an acceptable level of credibility to ensure that he means business. He has now called for a fresh wave of economic reforms in the rapidly changing country. Among other steps, he called for a reduction in the military’s role in the economy, privatization of key industries and changes to Myanmar’s foreign investment law, all of which should help spur more growth.
Burma’s economy and its GDP were driven largely by the extractive industries : natural resources of timber, gas and other minerals contributed to over 70% of the GDP. Triple GDP could therefore be achieved in inviting the multinationals or the giant neighbours to triple extraction of the resources, but questions will remain whether the benefits of the accelerated extraction industry will trickle down to the poor.
If a traditional economic development perspective is adopted where a large workforce is engaged in contributing to a well-spread out economic development strategy, tripling the GDP in size in five years would require that the economy needs to expand on average 25% a year. That’s a tall order for even the world’s fastest-growing countries. Oil-and-gas rich Qatar was the fastest growing economy in 2011, and it grew 18%. Mineral-rich Mongolia, which was second fastest, expanded 17%.
With Aung Saan Suu Kyie, Burma is now a land of hope. Miracles are not necessary. What is required are clear-cut policies, medium and long term economic strategies and beyond that, a harnessing of the minds and hearts of the Burmese people to believe that there is now a clear turn-around. Burmese people need a clear opportunity to rebuild their lives.