Sunday, May 13, 2012

10-5-2012 For Burmese dissident, IMF might dream economic boom, but our dignity is worth more

For the International Monetary Fund, Myanmar could become Asia's "next frontier". Experts call for "appropriate reforms" to go along with the "labour force" and "natural resources." NLD representative in India says wealth "is not the sole aspiration"; what counts is "prosperity for the entire population".

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - "Most Burmese admire the Asian Tigers," nations like South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore that led the economic boom of the 1990s; however, "material success is not the sole aspiration." What really counts for Myanmar is "prosperity for the entire population and a life with dignity," said Tint Swe, a Burmese exiled leader and representative of the National league for Democracy (NLD) in India.

Speaking to AsiaNews about a recent report released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the veteran dissident, who fled the crackdown by the military regime in 1990, said, "Economic indicators" set by international financial institutions "should not be the driving factors".

For the IMF's 2011 report on Myanmar, the country "could become the next economic frontier in Asia if, with appropriate reforms, it can turn its rich natural resources, young labour force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies, to its advantage."

Last year, the economy grew by an estimated 5.5 per cent and could reach 6 per cent in the current year.

"Economic stability", inflation and "managed float" of the kyat, the national currency, are some of the key goals laid out in the report.

For the IMF, further economic liberalisation and privatisation are necessary even though companies close to the former military junta or connected to foreign interests are the best placed.

Improvements are possible in the energy sector and manufacturing. In an unprecedented move, the authorities have decided to cut military spending and invest more in education.

In order to understand the situation in Myanmar, AsiaNews interviewed Tint Swe, a Burmese dissident and NLD representative in India.

Dr Swe, are Myanmar's reforms only economic or have there been steps towards democracy?

It is clear that real changes are taking place in Burma. The nation is coming out of martial laws, one-party rule and military suppression. For the first time, a constitutional system is in place, although it is not fully democratic. Economic reforms have not yet been implemented even though restrictions have been lifted and new measures are taken. However, it must be noted that all these changes come after those in power entrenched their power base and economic holdings. The constitution favours the military-backed party. The military is guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and the head of state must be military-oriented. Economic opportunities have been in the hands of army and cronies.

What about lifting sanctions? Many have been vocal about it?

Some have called for the lifting of sanctions not on a rational basis but for their own sake. Myanmar's neighbours and other Asian countries, which have never cared for human rights, have called for sanctions to be lifted. The economy and wealth are very important. Burma is officially a Least Developed Country (LDC) since 1987. The country is extremely poor but there are millionaires, i.e. generals and their friends.

The country is enormously rich, endowed with a treasure-trove of natural resources. However, teak and hard wood forests as well as under-water fishery were sold out under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Natural Gas was sold out by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The revenue did not come to the State for public use and nothing indicates that Burma will lose its LDC status.

Burma has to rebuild from almost ground zero. So far, changes have been superficial. Millions of migrant workers and refugees cannot return home because there are no new jobs, better education or health care facilities. Sixty five percent of population is in the agricultural sector and has not been uplifted. The education system, which has been systematically destroyed, needs a couple of decades to improved. Deep-rooted corruption is a real challenge. Highly hierarchical workplace practices have to be changed. There are good people who want to change but many of them do not know how to do it.

In the recent past, China has been Myanmar's main trading partner. Will the opening to new markets and countries bring greater attention to human rights?

It will be a big mistake to rely on a single helping hand. It may be good for others but not for Burma. Burma's economic and financial reforms may or may not be good if measured against the IMF yardstick alone. The growth rate and the GDP are not always indicative of a people's wellbeing.

For decades, the people of Burma might have read about impressive growth figures in state-owned newspapers even though they had a hard time finding a square meal.

Since the Foreign Direct Investment Law was enacted in late 1988, over 30 foreign countries invested more than US$ 16 billion in over 400 projects in Burma as of March 2010.

Most foreign direct investment was in oil and natural gas and other energy-related activities. Agriculture and manufacturing have not seen any increase in investment.

Despite greater foreign investment, job opportunities, manufacturing and farming have shown little progress.

Agriculture represents a declining component of GDP: 58.8 per cent in 1991, 57.1 per cent in 2001 and 36.4 per cent in 2010.

Farm workers are thus not profiting from any growth.

Dr Swe, will Myanmar really become Asia's "new frontier"?

Yes, Burma has the potential to be an economic frontier. Burmese have been disgraced and degraded by their dictatorial rulers. They are ashamed of their standing and are eager to show their abilities and talents.

However, they need foreign assistance and more democratic changes to accomplish what amounts to a mission impossible. Businessmen everywhere are the same; they just want to make money and profit.

Sharing benefits is fine. However, at this juncture, mutual benefit cannot be done with multinationals and Burmese tycoons.

What are your main concerns?

Environmental concerns must government the construction of big dams, large-scale projects and cross-country pipelines. Issues such as the displacement of local communities, forced labour and fair compensation must be addressed. Transparency and accountability are still a dream in Burma. A Myanmar National Human Rights Commission has been set up recently, but its officials are not independent.

What impact are foreigners having on Burma's economic and social life?

Burma's civil society has not yet fully formed. Many NGOs have been active in Burma well before the 2010 election. New NGOs have come only after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met with President U Thein Sein and was favourably impressed. NGOs in Burma can be divided between those who eagerly endorsed the 2010 elections, and those who came only after Aung San Suu Kyi indicated her support.

Those that existed might have concluded that the National League for Democracy (NLD) had lost the battle and so they tried to create a non-NLD third force. In just a year, they were proven wrong. The NLD has become a legal entity and won a landslide in recent by-elections.

This shows how foreigners created a mess. Some do not understand Burma and failed to read the situation correctly. Although they might be well-intentioned, their plans do not help as intended. This is the situation. Those who lend a helping hand should realise that the bad times are not yet over in Burma. The military is still challenging democracy. Dividing the pro-democracy camp is not a good thing.

Most Burmese admire the Asian Tigers. They want to catch up with them quickly. However, material success is not the sole aspiration. Economic indicators should not be the driving factors. Human rights and environmental concerns are an imperative but what they really want is the prosperity of the entire population and a life with dignity. (DS)