Burma's reform remains fruitless as a general rule

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By - Zin Linn

Burma/Myanmar remains one of the world’s least developed countries, and was ranked 138 out of 182 countries in the 2010 UN’s Human Development Index.

Burma is one of Asia’s poorest countries, reflected in its health indicators. It had the 44th highest infant mortality rate of the 193 countries listed by the UNICEF in its 2011 State of the World’s Children report.

Burma is regularly along with the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index – in 2012, it was ranked 172 out of 174 countries, third from the bottom after Afghanistan and Somalia.

If one looked back in the near past, he could uncover an address made by President U Thein Sein during the ceremony of Rural Region Development and Socio-economic Improvement in Yangon Region at National Indoor Stadium on 2 June 2013, according to the state-run media.

In his address, the President said that utmost efforts had been made for the success of political, economic and administrative reforms throughout his period in office since March 2011.

While carrying out the development of peace and stability, national reconciliation and the rule of law, the nation had faced unforeseen challenges and difficulties. However, the government is determined to overcome these challenges and difficulties, the President said.

The President pointed out that without political stability economic development cannot be realized and without socioeconomic development political stability cannot be achieved, because politics and economy are interrelated.

“Although the country has economic potential, the appropriate size of population and territory, favorable weather patterns, a vast area of arable farmlands, a large workforce and natural resources, the country was listed as a LDC [Least Developed Country],” he said.

But he did not mention the misconducts of the consecutive military regimes including the previous junta which was run by himself as a prime minister.

He stressed the need for hard work to help Burma remove itself from the LDC list, adding that 70 per cent of the total citizens are extremely poor rural people whose livelihoods depend on the agricultural sector. He also acknowledged that city dwellers are kept in poverty by high interest rates, with much of their earnings going to business owners and moneylenders. But, at this point also, he failed to point out the military authorities’ abuses of power including monopoly of business opportunities and ignorance of citizens’ rights.

The President called for the establishment of cooperative societies and microfinance programs.

“Microfinance is intended not only to create immediate breathing space for citizens but also to enable them to stand on their own feet in the future,” the President said, calling for borrowers to make good use of loans and to repay in full when the time is due. Coincidentally, some ministries under his government have been criticized as a consequence of irregularities with their fiscal budgets.

However, the country’s Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi slammed the president’s reforms during an interview with Radio Free Asia (Burmese Service). She also said that more actions and less talk are required of the president if he is to complete the reform process.

President should discover some missing points on reform in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel lecture. Burma’s Nobel laureate highlights points on Burma’s reform in her Nobel lecture:

“The reform measures that were put into motion by President U Thein Sein’s government can be sustained only with the intelligent cooperation of all internal forces: the military, our ethnic nationalities, political parties, the media, civil society organizations, the business community and, most important of all, the general public. We can say that reform is effective only if the lives of the people are improved and in this regard, the international community has a vital role to play.”

Currently, the military and their cronies have a huge amount of control over the country’s economy. The military-owned the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (UMEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) are still exploiting the country’s key economic sectors with no information of financial flowing to the public sectors.

The country’s important natural resources and heavy industries including import, export and service sectors are dominated by UMEHL, MEC and their allies. Military-managed business firms and crony enterprises have copious opportunities and precious natural resources while the majority of citizens have been living under unpleasant scarcities for decades.

Despite much talk about needed economic reform, President failed to mention the corruption and unprofessional conduct of UMEHL and MEC. Without officially recognizing the well embedded corrupt practices in society, there can be no means to adequately address the issue.

The country’s citizens are very poor not because the country has no resources, but because the country’s leaders, including the new semi-elected government, refuses to acknowledge the extent of corruption and wealth amassed by the authoritative elites.

Without changing the functions and ownership of the military-run extra-large businesses, the President’s reform process will be of little real benefit to the general population. As foreign investment increases, the same military affiliated businesses and crony associates will be the biggest beneficiaries, not the citizens.

For example, in March this year, the parliamentary ‘Farmland Investigation Commission’ submitted its findings on land confiscation to the parliament. The report says that the military have taken almost 250,000 acres of land from villagers. The commission said that they had spoken to military leaders about the confiscation, and they acknowledged the army will return seized farmlands that are far-flung from army-bases. Moreover, the military authorities are also trying to provide compensation for farmers. But, most farmers refused to accept compensation since it was just like a token and did not meet the update price.

Nevertheless, the investigation is a step to the lead but there still maintain a range of considerable problems the commission has yet to be addressed. It was the first time that the commission only addressed land confiscated by the military. Even though the military has been involved in land confiscations, they are not the only one behind.

A case in point of shortfall of the commission’s report is the realism about the Letpadaung copper mine, which is not revealed by the commission since the land was not confiscated solely by the military. The government needs to release an immediate order to halt land-confiscation that is taking place now. It is seriously important to carry out comprehensive investigations throughout the country, proper legislation to address the issue, guarantees for adequate compensation and consultation with the local communities regarding any future development projects.

However, President U Thein Sein should not fail to remember that current reform process needs a genuine peaceful environment. With ongoing battles and land confiscation in ethnic areas, the country is not prepared to take delivery of International Development Aid as Donors have to ensure to stick to their ethical values. Hence, President should choose ‘taming of the military’ as his first priority – to stop not only conflict but also land grabbing.

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