This article explores Myanmar’s 100 year old journey of political turmoil and discusses the challenges the country faces today to reshape itself and get back on the radar
The Crushed Power
It is a land replete with stones of exotic appeal, rich with natural resources and an extremely high arable land per capita. Yet Myanmar is struggling to finance its deficits, secure loans, establish relations with nations around the world, convince investors and support its approximately 55 million people.
Myanmar (earlier Burma) gained its freedom in 1948. The country underwent a radical change in the period after its freedom; transforming from Asia’s bread basket to a state hosting the tumour of political and economic turmoil. Myanmar’s opted democracy under the parliamentary system post independence did not last long for a very simple reason that haunts it even today: communal discord.
The roots of communal disturbance in Myanmar can be traces to the times when it was under British rule. The British allowed many parts of the Burmese communities to rule themselves as long as they fell in line with British interests; much like the princely states in neighbouring British India. This particular style of rule gave local leaders the illusion of an independent state within a supposed state and let to split loyalties of local communities to powers in and near the country. For when Myanmar gained independence, the political national leaders were unable to reverse the self rule under a strong federation of states in line with the country’s constitution.
The striking discord in the representation of the ethnic minorities lay the seeds for the country’s long years of military rule for parliamentary system had resulted in nothing but inaction. The Burma Independence Army was founded in 1941 with the help of the Japanese. The army led by Aung San fought in the Burma Campaign on the side of the Imperial Japanese Army. Even here, a large number of the recruits were Burmese giving little space to ethnic minorities. The BIA was replaced with the Burma Defence Army, founded on 26 August 1942 with three thousand BIA veterans. The army became Burma National Army with Ne Win as its commander on 1 August 1943 when Burma achieved nominal independence. Ne Win had not realised that he was soon to become the supreme commander of millions of people.
Owing to worsening political and economic condition of the country, on 28th October, 1958 the then Prime minister of Burma, U Nu invited General Ne Win to form a “Caretaker Government” and handed over power on 28 October 1958. The invite changed the shape of Myanmar political structure forever. Immediately after taking power Ne Win dismissed several high ranking officers due to their involvement with other political parties and sections. Following this in 1962, General Ne Win successfully led a coup d’état and established a nominally socialist military government that sought to follow the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” A policy of economic isolation was followed with the military expropriation of private businesses; a policy that lay the groundwork to the enormous black market that the country was to develop in its successive years.
The Burmese Socialist Party was the sole political party of the country and lead the military rule for more than a decade. The party primarily composed of military personnel. In fact, government servants underwent military training and the Military Intelligence Service functioned as the secret police of the state. Absolute military power and misrepresentation led to the ethnic minorities create their own leaders who would fight for them. The army had absolute power and did nothing but plunder villages, murder and rape. The Socialist Party had exactly the opposite effect of what it intended to be. Communal uprisings increased and paved the way for 1988’s Four Eights Uprising.
The situation was as bad as it could be. At the height of the Four Eights Uprising against the socialist government, Former General Ne Win, who at the time was Chairman of the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), issued a warning against potential protestors during a televised speech. He stated that if the “disturbances” continued the “Army would have to be called and I would like to make it clear that if the Army shoots, it has no tradition of shooting into the Air, it would shoot straight to hit”. The armed forces under General Saw Maung formed a State Law and Order Restoration Council, repealed the constitution and declared martial law on 18 September 1988. By late September the military had complete control of the country.
If the political situation was not disastrous enough, absolute military control brought thundering economic sanctions by a number of countries from around the world. The country’s last lifeline was cut and western sanctions crushed whatever was left of the economy. The military rule did everything it could. It ensured that the economy saw no room to grow and that communal tensions reach an all time high.
The only silver lining amidst all these political uprisings was Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence in the 1988 Uprisings, and became the General Secretary of the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD). In the 1990 elections, NLD won 81% of the seats in Parliament, but the results were nullified, as the military refused to hand over power, resulting in an international outcry. She had, however, already been detained under house arrest before the elections. She remained under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.
Era of Reform:
The year 2010 marked to be a revolutionary year in the country’s political and economic structure. The military was under immense pressure from the world powers for its failure to provide basic humanitarian aid and rights to its citizens. It led to a call for elections. The military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claimed a resounding victory in the first elections for 20 years. Although opposition groups allege widespread fraud and many Western countries condemn the vote as a sham, the junta said it marked the transition from military rule to a civilian democracy. A week after the election, Aung San Suu Kyi who had been prevented from taking part in the elections got released from house arrest a week after the elections.
In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 77% of seats in Myanmar’s landmark polls, according to final results released by the election commission. The NLD won 887 seats, or 77.1%, providing Suu Kyi with a majority in both houses of parliament.
Problems and Solutions:
The exploration of the country’s history highlights that a simple majority will not be enough for the new government to implement all that it has promised. The very first challenge is constitutional. Although NLD has won over from a landslide victory, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party won 117 or 10% of the seats while the army reserves a quarter of all seats in parliament. Any constitutional reform requires 75% +1 majority which gives the military a clear veto on any constitutional reform. In addition to that, the army controls the major ministers of defence, border affairs and home affairs with the last ministry giving it power over potentially everything that goes on in the country.
The transition to a democratic government in 2010 took place owing to the simple fact that the military could no longer control to the dwindling economy. The ground for a potential economic climb is still weak for the country. For even though the people have chosen their leader, the problems to tackle remain the same for Aung San Suu Kyi. The country is a communal mess with a number of communities fighting for rights that are not provided in the constitution. Any change in the respective regard requires military consent which is high unlikely in today’s date.
The transition to democracy remains fraught by ethnic violence. For instance in October 2015, the government signed a nationwide cease-fire with eight armed ethnic groups after more than two years of negotiation which was violated only immediately. The cease fire was violated owing to the fact that the government did not recognize the other 8 ethnic groups and their leaders.
Even though the West has removed most economic sanctions, Myanmar needs billions of dollars worth of investment in infrastructure and energy sector, according to Asia Development Bank reports. A 2014 McKinsey report suggests that the economy has the potential to grow into a $200 billion by the year 2030. But given the current tensions within the country, the government is in scarcity both, investors and debtors.
Another major area that the government needs to look at is its own people. A high number of people depend on agriculture. About 60% of the workforce is employed in the primary sector. While Myanmar has the potential to grow tropical and sub-tropical crops in one of the most fertile regions in the world, its productivity is extremely low. During monsoon season, one day of work generates only 23 kg of paddy in Myanmar, compared to 62 kg in Cambodia, 429 kg in Vietnam, and 547 kg in Thailand. Low labor productivity is the main reason why agricultural wages are some of the lowest in Asia. An agricultural worker in Myanmar earns only $1.8-$2.5 per day during monsoon season, and $3.0-$3.5 during dry season. In comparison, a farm laborer in Thailand earns $8.5 per day, and a Philippine farmer earns on average $7 per day. The government must ensure new policies and minimum rates in order to promote and support the ailing sector of the economy.
The next area that must be tackled is Myanmar’s thriving black economy. US-based non-profit organisation Global Financial Integrity (GFI) looked at illicit money flows through Myanmar from the early 1960s, when a military government in the country took over, up to 2013, and found that nearly $100bn were funnelled illegally through Myanmar, whereby the flows swelled massively over the past few years. All this is discounting the smuggling of drugs that is rampant among the country’s youth. Local armed leaders earn from the production of artificial heroin that is in high demand in neighbouring China.
Previous economic sanctions have also aided the smuggling of precious stones from the country. The government needs to implement laws and get the forces in the right place to block these illegal trading routes and systems in place. The government’s export first policy, which required traders to export more than they import, resulted in bills with false invoices led to one of the worst implemented policy for huge losses in tax revenues. The government needs focused policy makers that need to look at filling the state treasury for infrastructure purposes.
Myanmar has the potential workforce and resources provided the NLD is able to direct them in the right direction. With major financial backing, a bright future is near but can slip away at the slightest possibility. The country’s long military rule has deepened the problems of misrepresentation of ethnic minorities, smuggling of precious stones and drugs, and economic and foreign policy. Solving these will take time and money; both factors which the current government is short of.