Sat 26 Dec 2009
Filed under: Opinion,Other
“There is the hope that this is the moment of change for the country.” That optimistic statement was made by Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel Economics laureate after a visit to Burma.
Stiglitz was speaking at a press conference in Singapore organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) after attending an economics forum in the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw.
Stiglitz met Burmese military officials led by Maj-Gen Htay Oo, agriculture and rural development minister, and Soe Tha, national development minister, and told the forum that revenues from oil and gas, if well used, could open up a new era for the country.
He called specifically for an increase in spending on education, which he said was necessary because the country is aging and the next generation needs to be prepared to face the challenges of economic development.
Stiglitz especially urged the Burmese regime to improve the economic conditions of the rural poor in Burma. Around 75 percent of the country’s estimated 57 million people live in rural areas.
Burmese farmers are especially hard hit because of crippling loan charges. According to researchers, Burmese farmers pay as much as 7-10 percent interest a month—which Stiglitz described as a symptom of serious malfunctioning of the credit system.
In a situation where the financial sector worked properly, interest rates would be lower, he said. He stressed this point repeatedly and noted that productivity suffered because of the lack of capital to buy fertilizers.
The Naypyidaw forum was the second in a planned series of events initiated with a visit to Burma in July by UN Under Secretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary Noeleen Hezyer. A previous visit to Burma by Hezyer was described by ESCAP as the “first step in a development partnership with the government of Myanmar [Burma] to discuss its agriculture economy and policy.”
The Burmese economy today is worse than at any time since World War II. The country’s rural economy has been extremely hard hit, even before Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008.
So there is no doubt that Burma needs seriously and radically to reform its agricultural sector. The big question is whether or not the ruling generals will take Stiglitz’s valuable advice—historically, Burmese leaders never listened to the input of experts.
The fledgling-democracy that followed independence from Britain in 1948 failed to improve the economy of a country recovering from the ravages of war. That era ended with the military coup in 1962 , following insurgencies by many ethnic minorities.
The late dictator Ne Win, busy with strategies to deal with the rebels, never considered how to open up the country and boost its economy to improve the lives of the people. During his rule from 1962 to 1988, the economy of the country sank ever deeper and the country was ranked as an LDC, or “Least Developed Country,” by the UN in 1987.
One year later, the uprising fired by the moribund economy brought about the collapse of Ne Win’s authoritarian government.
Like Stiglitz, Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew often suggested an opening up of the Burmese economy to encourage tourism and attract foreign investors. Former closed countries like China and Vietnam were held up as examples. Lee wrote in his book, From Third World to First: “Nothing happened. Ne Win did not want foreigners in Burma.”
The current government, which succeeded Ne Win’s authoritarian regime, has claimed it introduced the country to a “market economy,” although that never was the case.
All fundamental market institutions in Burma are suppressed and private enterprises are co-owned or indirectly owned by the state. Corruption is rampant. According to the 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International, Burma is the world’s third most corrupt country.
The ruling generals have declared that the country could be self-sufficient without having much to do with the outside world, especially those Western countries that are strong critics of their human rights violations and mismanagement.
In his book, Lee Kuan Yew recalled his trip to Rangoon in 1965: “I did not realize at that time how determined he [Ne Win] was to be self-sufficient, to have little to do with the outside world and to return to a romantic, idyllic past when Burma was rich and self-sufficient.”
How about today? It all depends on the mind-set of Than Shwe, who has the final word on any issues in Burma, including the economy and economic policies.
Can Than Shwe be expected to heed the suggestions made by Stiglitz? It is a matter of will. The world has pushed and advised Than Shwe and his government in the past two decades to undertake the changes Burma must make in the interests of a stronger economy and political stability. Burma has never seen a hint of these positive changes because the generals never considered them.
Currently, the international community and regional governments hope to persuade the generals to introduce greater political and economic reform.
The US has taken the lead by dropping its policy of isolating Burma in favor of engagement. However, the junta could face tougher US sanctions if Washington’s new policy of direct engagement with the regime fails to produce results. That’s the message contained in recent remarks by legislators in Washington and US diplomats in Asia.
It’s to be hoped that Than Shwe will take seriously an additional message from Stiglitz: “It would be a mistake to miss this moment.”