Getting real about Myanmar’s development

In December 2011, President Thein Sein urged his government to rebuild the beaten-up former capital of Yangon (Rangoon), a city of an estimated population of seven million, into a modern city like Singapore.  When it comes to traffic congestion and squalid slums, Yangon has come to resemble Manila or Bangkok in recent years.

In response the Minister of Industry, Soe Thein, promised flyovers at four busy intersections in the city in four months.  Yangon would emulate Singapore’s infrastructure, from railway and road networks and mass transportation to sewage system and parking lots.  He said that his government should apologise to the public if they cannot deliver the bridges in four months.  Four months on, in April 2012, the city officials were seen taking part in the ground-breaking ceremony for the first flyover at Hledan junction.

At the same time, the Ministry of Commerce has been trying to keep up with the Joneses in terms of vehicles per capita.  There are 7 cars for every 1,000 Burmese citizens, compared to 270 for 1,000 Thais and 14 for 1,000 Vietnamese.  It is not only that the number of cars in the country must be increased — they must look new or, at least like good second-hand cars.  In September last year, the government introduced a scheme that required the owners of 20 to 40 years old vehicles to trade their cars in for newer models.

The speed of car import license reform has been almost breakneck — by early May 2012 ‘every citizen with a foreign bank account’ can now import cars.  The government’s decision to allow the import of over 300,000 this year is likely to make Myanmar, already one of the biggest dumping grounds for Chinese goods, the biggest dumping ground for used cars from Japan and Thailand.

This is quite telling on several counts.  First, just as they were in the old days, Burmese officials remain prepossessed with the appearance of development rather than actual development.  In the past they have been known to have whitewashed walls, fences, trees and their account books whenever there were inspections by higher authorities.  These days they want Myanmar’s image to be seen in a different light overnight, inasmuch as they want to leave the stench of their soldier socks behind.  This is not going to be easy.

Second, whereas the Ministries should be in cooperation on such interrelated projects as road building and car import licence reforms, they are in competition, trying to outdo one another, not in performance but in currying favours from the President to gain better financial allocations for their projects.

Another instance of Myanmar’s ministerial discordance is reflected in the recent revival of the visa on arrival system.  It is highly unlikely that the influx of tourists enabled by the Ministry of Immigration and Population will be matched by the current capacity and management of the Ministry of Hotel and Tourism, which has committed to responsible tourism.

The formation of a ‘national commission for planning’, comprising all the cabinet ministers, the rest of the executive members of the government and local administrations, headed by the President, this June may be a move to mitigate the ministerial discordance.  However, observers who have seen similar centralised ‘national commissions’ come and go under the former socialist and military regimes remain sceptical.  One may ask, if the ‘national commission for planning’ is lined up with literally all the executive members of the government, what is the government for in the first place?

Third, institutionalised red tape and incompetence mean that efficiency and transparency remain elusive and the authorities hardly ever deliver on their promises.  When they do, the Burmese usually have more than enough to complain or laugh about with the mediocre goods and services they receive.  Reforms may be fast-paced, but the country’s institutions are not keeping up; the lack of rule of law and corruption continue to block Myanmar’s road to progress.

Instead of turning into a socially more responsive and responsible entity, the state has withdrawn itself from social responsibility by transferring most of it to the private sector and to civil society.  The education, health care and energy sectors have been privatised.  It is likely that even water will be privatised in the near future.

Crony capitalism is not just going unchecked.  It is now openly being encouraged by the presidential economic advisor U Myint himself.  In a meeting in Yangon in May 2012, U Myint famously declaimed that cronies were also patriots and that they should be shepherded systemically.  ‘First and foremost, (about two dozens of extremely wealthy) cronies should prove their patriotism by paying the income tax regularly,’ U Han Tun, another economist quipped.

As the result of state failing in social responsibility, Burmese civil society has become increasingly instrumental in filling the holes of basic needs, public health and education for the needy.  The flipside is that Burmese civil society actors by and large, save the civic groups by former dissidents (88 Generation Students, for instance), do not challenge state policies lest they should lose their hard-earned operational space in the country.

What of the mainstream opposition?  Aung San Suu Kyi is a visionary but we cannot expect her to change everything by herself.  Besides, the sixty-seven year old icon has limited time on her hands.  The capacity gap between the opposition and the government was succinctly highlighted by dissident comedian Zargana, who said ‘…in 1988, we used to scorn the Burmese army that the combined education of three soldiers did not make up to the tenth grade.  Now they (the government) are employing the PhDs while the capacity of most of the opposition members remains torpid.’

To be sure many reforms that do not entail much state responsibility, such as the easing of censorship, the state toleration of peaceful protests and reformation of guilds and re-unionisation of students and labour, have been enjoyed by Myanmar citizens.  Yet the presidential musing that Myanmar, one of the most corrupt and underdeveloped countries in the region, should catch up with Singapore may be too noble to be taken seriously.  For inspiration at this juncture, he should look no further than Vietnam, a war-torn low-income country that has emerged as a lower middle-income country over the past twenty years after it has normalised trade and diplomatic relations with its former foe, the United States.

Ko Ko Thett is a Burmese poet and a literary translator.  He studies and works at the Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna.  With James Byrne, he is the co-editor and translator of the forthcoming Bones will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets (ARC, UK July 2012, and Northern Illinois University Press, April 2013) .