The NY Times ran an analytical piece today on Myanmar’s highly choreographed political – and more recently economic – opening. The Times’ both supports and problematizes my earlier prediction that liberalization under such terms could lead to rapid development that would neither be broad-based nor pro-poor, along the lines of Cambodia’s recent history.
On the negative side, historian Thant Myint-U is quoted as saying the democracy movement has effectively been sidelined, leaving the struggle for political and economic power to be fought out among factions of the elite connected with the current regime:
“Outside the country, the situation is perceived as a simple one where the army is trying to perpetuate its own rule,” he said. “Inside, everyone knows that intense competition will be under way within the elite, involving not only the military, but also retired army officers, senior bureaucrats and a rising business class.”
On the other hand, the nature of this competition is such that attempts to co-opt ordinary people may actually do them some long-term good. According to the report, such efforts include attempts to increase rice exports by supporting local farmers.
Military officers are campaigning for the elections as if their careers depended on it, announcing dozens of projects, including the plan for 24-hour electricity in Yangon, that they hope will win the affection of a population that in many parts of the country despises them.
One crucial change has taken place in the rice industry, which has the potential to raise the income of farmers, the backbone of the country who make up two-thirds of the population. Myanmar was once the world’s largest rice exporter, a title now held by neighboring Thailand.
“Give me 10 years and we’ll be back,” said Tin Maung Thann, an adviser to a newly created rice industry association and the president of Myanmar Egress, a nonprofit development group. “Of course we can become a big rice exporter.”
A series of programs sponsored by foreign governments in the Irrawaddy Delta has helped rice-growing villages rebound from the damage of a cyclone that killed at least 130,000 people two years ago. Farmers are being trained to use fertilizers, better rice seed and more modern farming techniques.
The government has empowered the rice industry association with management of the country’s rice stocks, a crucial change from the past when generals who feared rice shortages shut down exports with the stroke of a pen, overriding any contracts that rice traders had signed with their customers.
This approach stands in stark contrast to Cambodia where economic growth policies related to land have tended to involve concessions and sales, often to elite or foreign interests and almost always to the detriment of local smallholders. Given Myanmar’s history, allowing rice farmers to manage their own affairs may ultimately come to be seen as a more significant grant of power to the people than the ballots to be cast in the forthcoming questionable elections.