Burma: Potential for Growth or Catastrophe

By George Maliha ’13

In 1956, Mao Zedong inaugurated a political opening in China with his Hundred Flowers Campaign, saying these words: “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress.” Unfortunately, most historians have concluded that the “opening” was just a ploy to draw out opposition, leading to one of the most oppressive backlashes of the 20th century and culminating in the disastrous and brutal Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. The lesson of these events is that liberalization can be short-lived and fragile, especially when at the mercy of a strong state.

Today, decades later, in an attempt to balance and protect itself from Chinese influence, Burma has begun to open to the West and global markets. The infamous secretive military junta that ran the country for decades has announced its intention to end its isolation and engage with its neighbors in the region and beyond. The results have been spectacular: democracy activists (most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, but also many others) and political prisoners have been released, opposition members are now allowed into Parliament, restrictions on rights and freedoms are being reduced, and the economy is beginning to enter global markets. Internationally, punitive sanctions leveled by the European Union and the United States have begun to lift (military sanctions are largely still in place, though), providing rogue states such as North Korea an example of the benefits to be realized from cooperating with other powers.

Nonetheless, it is important to be cautious. Foreign policy should be made considering the conditions on the ground, not the conditions that are hoped for. Burma is just at the beginning of its democratic transition and economic liberalization; a crisis or change of national feeling could halt or even reverse both relatively rapidly. And, despite the amazing gains that the nation has made, it has a long path ahead. As such, it is important to take a measured stance towards the nation and ensure that it truly liberalizes before dropping sanctions and inviting the whole world to invest and trade. While the U.S. and European Union are right to maintain sanctions on military imports into Burma and promote Burmese successes, at least privately, Washington should stress the conditionality of its actions: if Burma regresses or begins to democratize in rhetoric alone, there will be consequences. The sanctions can return and trade liberalization can stop.

Politically, although no one would desire a return to the past, Burma still lacks a functioning democracy undergirded by a vibrant civil society. Its constitution was written by the military junta, and the current president, Thein Sein—although nominally a civilian—was a former military general with close ties to the junta. The nation has only had one election since the early 1960s that has been recognized internationally as legitimate (for 46 of the 664 seats of the Parliament). Now, while these last elections were the major impetus for the removal of sanctions, history is full of examples of republics and democracies that have had a few elections and then veer off into more authoritarian or dictatorial regimes.

Indeed, Burma will never have a functioning democracy without the institutions and frameworks that foster debate and dialogue on national issues. Tellingly, censorship of the press was not eased until 2011 and 2012, and independent daily newspapers did not return to the streets until 2013—after having been absent since the early 1960s. Even with these strides, there are topics that the Burmese press cannot cover, and parts of the new media law eerily echo previous, oppressive enactments passed under the junta. Indeed, while the rhetoric from the government continues to promise more freedom of the press, it remains to be seen whether it will allow the Burmese press to flourish and support its democratic reforms.

Moreover, in spite of the flowery rhetoric, Burma still has political prisoners, human rights violations, and serious social problems. While political prisoners continue to be released and pardoned – a great development – such efforts must be accelerated towards a complete resolution. In addition, Burma is a very diverse state, and while ethnic Burmese dominate (about 70% of the nation’s population), there are several large minorities. The massive 2012-13 riots in Rakhine State between Buddhists and Muslims highlight many of the tensions that remain unresolved throughout the nation and must be addressed in order to build a peaceful, unified society.

Another potential pressure point—and one that could derail the reforms—is the economy. With the lifting of sanctions, Burma has once again begun to engage in international trade with Asian and Western firms jumping into its emerging market. Indeed, hotels and facilities in Rangoon (the former capital and largest city) have been booked to capacity as foreign businessmen flood in searching for opportunity. They also bring substantial capital with them, turning Rangoon’s property market into one of the world’s hottest. Indeed, prices in some commercial districts are now double what they are in lower Manhattan.

The risks for overheating cannot be overstated. Especially as regional neighbors (especially China) see their own economic growth slipping and slowing, Burma may open into the global market just as regional economic activity slows or contracts, turning the Burmese off to continued liberalization and potentially dislocating the population. Another related issue is whether the infrastructure of this until-recently economic backwater can withstand this flurry of activity; it may be literally too much to handle. Although investments in infrastructure are being made, it is simply not known whether such improvements can keep pace with the accelerated development and foreign investment. Indeed, while some point to Taiwan or South Korea as examples of the rapid growth and adjustment the region has handled successfully before, both nations liberalized very slowly—and by some measures, continue to protect their market and export industries.

Now, this is not meant to discourage or criticize the great progress that Burma has made over the last several years, but it is essential that the United States and its allies act cautiously towards the country. The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are proof that democratization and liberalization are neither simple nor inevitable. A crisis or rogue element—within or outside Burma—could derail this progress relatively quickly.

Hopefully, in retrospect, it will be said that Burma took its first steps to become a vibrant economy and open democracy in the second decade of the 21st Century. But the United States must be prepared for a different story line.

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