Southeast Asia Globe is member-supported publication featuring in-depth journalism that promotes a more informed, inclusive and sustainable future. Members work with our team to shape our editorial direction and hold us accountable.


Be a part of the story. Subscribe today!

Reckless optimism: Myanmar's 'reformed' government?

OPINION: Civilians in Myanmar lack the luxury of wearing rose-tinted glasses

Dr Kyi May Kaung
July 11, 2012
Reckless optimism: Myanmar's 'reformed' government?

OPINION: Civilians in Myanmar lack the luxury of wearing rose-tinted glasses

Dr Kyi May Kaung
Dr Kyi May Kaung

Following recent developments in Burma, the international media has suffered from a surfeit of overly optimistic reports of the glass-is-half-full variety, failing to analyse what constitutes ‘reform’. Change, indeed, is one part of reform. Considering that a handful of changes do not qualify as a ‘reformed’ government, it is clear to me that most media people do not understand what they are talking about.
For reforms to stick, they need to be structural or systemic reforms. As Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been a victim of a kangaroo court’s ruling, repeatedly points out, there is no rule of law in Burma.
For all you cup-half-full people, please be aware that you may be half-baked. It’s nice to be cheerful, but what if your good cheer is based on faulty facts?
To understand Burma you need to know that it has always been a centrally-controlled system – from 1044 under the time of the Bagan kings, through British colonial rule to the ‘more’ centralised system set up by general Ne Win that is still in place today.
Suu Kyi recently claimed that “good laws already exist in Burma”, but they are not enforced. In fact such ‘laws’ in Burma are either based on outdated British colonial laws, like the riot act, or were established under the command economy of Ne Win.
With the exception of the democratically-elected U Nu period post-World War II, which ended with Ne Win’s coup of 1962, no law in Burma has ever been set by discussion and consensus in a real parliament. (I consider the present Hluttaw at worst a joke – a bad joke and an evil one – and at best, a movie studio setting). Farmers still don’t own their land – all they have is the right to cultivate it.
Following the brutal clampdown on mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, the junta began to change to an ‘open economy’. But guess what? It was open only to the regime and its crony capitalists.
Tempted perhaps by the tasty profits the military earned under the caretaker government of the 1950s – which was a kind of dry-run coup for the junta led by people such as Brigadier Aung Gyi, a renowned capitalist from a commercial family – in 1990, the military established its Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd, now the country’s largest conglomerate.
Even though Suu Kyi’s recent call for responsible investment – warning investors of “reckless optimism” – rubbed the president the wrong way, I think they were completely justified. If investors flee from Burma, it won’t be due to her remarks, but because of the following things that made the news in May and June: escalating racial unrest in the Arakan region of western Burma leading to deaths; gold miners and factory workers striking as labour unrest spread; a lack of rule of law, allowing police to act like thugs, with a group of 70 ganging up on people at a roadside cafe and one woman dying while in their custody; the anniversary to mark a year of increasing attacks on the Kachin in northeastern Burma; a court ruling in favour of Zaykabar, a company that has been accused of stealing more than 800 acres of land from farmers in Rangoon’s Mingaladon Township; and farmers striking in Monywa against a Chinese copper company that has dumped excavation waste on their farmland.
In short, dark storm clouds are gathering. Given the degree of anger, it is not hard to imagine something unfolding along similar lines to the French Revolution.
Dr Kyi May Kaung is an independent, Washington DC-based political economist
Also view Myanmar reform: Learning curve 

Read more articles