Barking up the wrong tree (3): Economic-focused reform

The anthology, Debating Democratization (2014), presents Burma experts’ perspectives particularly on current reform process. The contributors of the book mostly argue for the reform process as a hopeful undertaking with some challenges on the way to achieve its goal. The authors see the reform as the military generals’ genuine imitative germinated in their deep desire for the best of the country.

Morten B. Pedersen, one of the contributors of the book, repetitively underscores that the military government has undertaken the reform “because it wants to, not because it had to.” However, the depth and extent of current reform so far primarily focuses only on the economic aspect of the country while ignoring basic issues related to rights and equality of the citizens that enable a functional democratic society, which is the path supposedly chosen by the new government.

It is pertinent to be again reminded by Aung San Suu Kyi’s warning against “the people who value their own businesses more than politics,” made during her campaign in Myitkyina, Kachin State in 1989. Providing as an example of the people who were very successful in business during the era of BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party), she persuaded her audiences that economic prosperity alone without equitable political system would do no good for the country, except for a few in a short period of time. Thus, she pleaded the people of Kachin State not to “place economics above politics.”

Placing economics above politics is exactly what the new government is now doing in Burma. The economic transformation, signified by the rapid emergence of new buildings, foreign companies, and trade laws, provide as a façade for a reform progress. Soon after the United States and European Union lifted economic and trade sanctions in 2013, foreign investments have poured into Burma creating an appearance of economic boon for the country. The projects such as of drafting the Foreign Investment Law, the Myanmar Special Economic Zone Law, and the Small and Medium Enterprises Law have undergone in cooperation with business enterprises.
In order to accommodate these new contracts, according to Forest Trends, a forest conservation organization, the new government has allocated 11 million acres of some of Southeast Asia’s “last remaining biodiversity rich forests” as suitable to be cleared for private agribusiness projects. (Forest Trends) Many of these “allocated lands” pertains to the ethnic area such as Kachin state. As we speak, the British mining firm Aurasian Minerals Plc (AuM) is getting ready to enter Kachin State’s Hpakant area to expand its jade and gem mining concessions.

In light of current prima facie of reform that mainly concentrates in area of economic development, the country’s wretched and sinking economic condition, and the top-down strategy of transformation adopted by the generals, economic interest is what motivated and will drive the course of reform process. It is no doubt that a thriving economy under the quasi-civilian, military-controlled government is a desirable condition. And it seems to be an achievable goal as the way current momentum of reform is taking shape in the country. It is not a far cry undertaking as such praetorian system of governance has been historically and successfully implemented as evidenced in the political transformations of neighboring countries such as China, Russia, and Indonesia.

Thus, the new government conceives and implements economic growth as a panacea for the country’s problems. However, the reform process that centers on economic development is, first, divergent to the true reform needed for the country. Unless there is a just and accountable political system, the prosperity gained through current reform would benefit only the few. In order to sustain a healthy economy, an equitable political system must be in place for a country. Thus, reform through economy can only serves for the maintenance of the de facto political condition.

Second, the economic-focused reform is, moreover, used as a divertive tool since money calls the shot in every aspect of politics. Special permits, concessions, and awards sanctioned by the government in the name of economic growth distract people with good intention from their effort for greater good, including leadership from opposition and arm resistance groups. Third, the economic reform without any political progress will belatedly emerge as a distortive act, abusing good-well gestures of the international community.

While it is an important component of a nation, what the reform should rudimentarily tackle is not how to bolster the economic growth of the country. A transparent and accountable political system that upholds fair and just rules of law ensure thriving economy. Until and unless current reform addresses critical political concerns such as the phony constitution (2008), the rigged election (2010), and failed Panglong promise, current reform process is nothing but a self-destruct ruse, barking up the wrong tree in order to stymie people’s hope and aspiration.