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Disillusionment in Myanmar?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 22, 2013

Myanmar's Police Chief Zaw Win speaks at a news conference about the recent bomb blasts around the country, at the Yangon Division government office in Yangon on October 18, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters) Myanmar's Police Chief Zaw Win speaks at a news conference about the recent bomb blasts around the country, at the Yangon Division government office in Yangon on October 18, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)


Last week, a string of bombings rocked Myanmar, killing at least one person and hitting targets ranging from the northeast to downtown Yangon. So far, the government has arrested eight men in conjunction with the bombings and alleged that the perpetrators are ethnic Karen who want to deter foreign investment and are unhappy that the main Karen organizations are negotiating for peace.

But as political scientist Yola Verbruggen notes on New Mandala, the specifics of who planted the bombs obscures a broader point: the bombings only add to an overall feeling of insecurity among the public in Myanmar that has been building for more than a year. This feeling of insecurity among the public stems from several factors. In part, it is the result of rising inter-religious violence across the country, but it is also the result of disappointment that the transition to democracy, launched in 2010, has not thus far led to significant, broad-based development.  She writes:

Many people, from taxi drivers to shop attendants, voice disappointment over the current democratization process. Nothing has changed, they say, they still struggle to provide for their families and opportunities are limited. Everybody who has taken a taxi in Yangon has probably had a graduate engineer, former school teacher or certified lawyer as their driver; they cannot get a job in their own field or get paid too badly to stick with it. Attention is focused on creating a ‘peace dividend’ in the ethnic areas, but because there is no fighting in the cities, similar policies do not seem to be implemented in central Myanmar. People do not understand why their livelihoods have not yet improved. They thought the magic of the word “democracy” would change their country,  but now they are becoming impatient.

Like Verbruggen, I also have found many people expressing the sentiment (at least in Yangon) that the reform process that has been in place since 2010 should already have brought wider development. As I write in my book Democracy in Retreat, this expectation that democratization will quickly bring rapid growth, growth that lifts all boats, has been common in developing nations going back at least to the early 1990s. Throughout the massive wave of post-Cold War democratization, across Eastern Europe and parts of Africa and Latin America and Asia, both leaders of developing nations and many leaders of Western democracies aggressively touted the idea that political change would foster rapid and equitable growth. (Only a rare leader like Nelson Mandela had the courage to tell his people that democracy, while a good in itself, would not miraculously produce economic change.) Yet while democracy tends to produce a better quality of life over the long-term—one prominent study linked democracy with lower child mortality—in the immediate post-authoritarian period, democracy does not necessarily lead to higher growth. The chaos of a transition period actually can depress growth.

It seems the lessons of the 1990s and early 2000s have not been learned in Myanmar, as local leaders, from the president’s office to the NLD, and foreign consultants and donors have been overselling Myanmar’s reforms. Myanmar’s political reforms have, since 2010, been extremely impressive. But constantly suggesting that the political reform process is going to produce a massive economic dividend, in a country that is still very challenging for investors, is only fostering this uneasy, angry mood.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Đào Xuân Tùng

    Not easy to change all things once. The great change was made that is politics: free media, “anti_government” force is allowed… These changes will bring other changes..

  • Posted by Andrew

    I am a Singaporean and I run a business consultancy in Yangon. I have lived in Myanmar for more than a year now and employ Myanmar staff. I can say that with the influx of foreign investors many educated Myanmar people who speak good English and have relevant overseas working experience are drawing salary that are at least 5 times that of an average white collar worker.
    Due to the poor state of education and low skill base of the Myanmar workers – many Myanmar white collar workers who have never worked overseas and have poor command of English are practically unemployable by foreign companies without proper training and guidance.

    I am of the opinion that the reform and foreign investment policy have benefited the middle-upper class and those with good education, speak good English and have acquired overseas working experience.

    The current foreign investment law (FIL) that was passed in Nov 2012 – makes it mandatory for foreign companies that invest under the FIL scheme to hire only Myanmar workers for low skilled work, limit the employment of foreigners to 75% , 50% and 25% in the 1st & 2nd year,3rd & 4th years and 5th & 6th years respectively.
    I believe that the current government under President Thein Sein has done its part to try to create jobs for the average Myanmar people. However due over 50 years of economic mismanagement there is just so much any government can do in a short period of time. I believe that the economy will chug along at double digit GDP growth for the next 20 years as it is coming in from a very low base – but will it benefit a wide swathe of Myanmar people? I would say not in the short term

    So far many foreign companies that have invested in Myanmar are mainly investing in the resource sectors such as mining, energy or power – these sectors are not big employer of white collar workers especially those that are poorly educate and do not speak good English. Sectors like tourism and garment are better at employing lowly educated workers. However in the tourism sector foreign language skill is a must for customer facing staff and this is in short supply in Myanmar. In the garment sector – Myanmar may price itself out of the global garment manufacturing market when it implement its minimum wage law with the prodding of many well-meaning NGOs.

    Myanmar needs strong leaders that are elected by the people and can make difficult trade-off decision as to who should get rich first, do you protect certain local inefficient industries such as telecom & banking to the detriment of the country, do you want to implement the minimum wage law that price the country out of the global manufacturing market when half the population are unemployed, do you want to implement Intellectual property law that makes every Myanmar person pay the full price for a copy of Microsoft Office when their average monthly income of a white-collar worker is less than US$100?

    There are no easy answers. As foreign investors in this country we can only work with the democratically elected leaders of the country to invest in a responsible manner to help create a better future for the Myanmar people over the next 30 to 50 years. I do not expect any feat of miracles by any democratically elected leaders in Myanmar any time soon.

  • Posted by Wicis

    Looking back at the past 25 years in Burma it’s clear that the govt. (read elements of the military) does use bombings to rally support around the military and will attack its own citizens if it takes pressure off them domestically. The end game in Burma is about getting all of the wealth and power spread across the different actors there (Bamar and the 40% of the population that comprise the armed ethnic insrugencies). This is something new and potentially dangerous because it means building up the country’s GDP but ensuring that the rewards get spread out. If the rewards don’t get spread out there will be even more violence carried out by the govt. only with better weapons than before. Until the West gets the govt. to sign peace agreements that provide equal rewards to all of the ethnic parties, the military and the democracy pushing elites there is no hope for that poor country of 50 million people. The risk of conflict escalation with the govt. using newly bought weapons from Russia and China is very real and time is running out.

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