Copyright Roland Watson
October 11, 2004

There should be no significant economic transition in Burma, certainly no concerted engagement by international players, including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and United Nations Development Program, until the military regime that rules the nation – the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – is defeated and replaced by the democratic opposition. In other words, we must not put the cart before the water buffalo. Burma must achieve a real peace before economic development can legitimately proceed.

A significant concern at present is that such international players, and also state actors, particularly in Europe and Asia, are becoming impatient with the slow progress towards democracy. Some have even argued that there should be economic engagement now (many Asian nations are already promoting close economic ties with the SPDC), before democracy is achieved. Such “donor momentum” must be rejected out of hand. Economic engagement will only enrich and extend the dictatorship, and through it the suffering of the people.

Economic development in any case is only one type of development, and for Burma it is the least important at the present time, and, in the initial period following the establishment of democracy. What is critical now is political development, i.e., that the dictatorship be defeated. International actors should focus on doing everything they can to accomplish this end. The democracy movement continues to be plagued by a lack of action. The words out of Europe, and the United Nations, while comforting, mean nothing. They generate false hopes, and at the same time disguise such institutions’ cowardice to take concrete steps. The European Union’s dismissal of its own criteria for attending the ASEM meeting in Hanoi, and the arguments it introduced to rationalize this appeasement (including its weak sanctions), were particularly deceitful.

When the dictatorship is defeated Burma will require additional political development, and also social development. Only then should economic development be implemented. The people of the country must decide what type of external economic engagement they desire, if any at all.

Rapid economic development, motivated by international actors, and without the informed consent of the people, is a form of dictatorship. Its implicit goals are to undermine equality and to steal the wealth of the nation – to establish an economic hierarchy and class structure and unsustainable patterns of resource exploitation – before the public is educated and empowered.

Political development

The different forms of development that a post-dictatorial Burma needs to undergo must each have their own underlying objectives and goals. For example, a primary goal of Burma’s political development should be to foster the unity that now exists among the many different groups that comprise the democracy movement. Burma is extraordinarily culturally diverse, yet it has few established traditions of multicultural cooperation. Because of this, the patterns of negotiation and compromise that will be required to restructure the government and create a functioning democracy may well be lacking. Plans for political development must directly address this concern.

The general issues that derive from this include communications and power-sharing. The formation of democratic institutions must be accomplished through forums that have broad participation, so all the viewpoints that exist in the nation are heard and addressed. For power-sharing, because of Burma’s history, it is arguable that any federal structure that is implemented must grant significant power to the states, relative to the center, to satisfy the well-founded desire of the ethnic nationalities to finally achieve their right of self-determination.

Regarding specific objectives:

- The new government must start from scratch. The current regime, including ministry officials, the police, and the military command, is irrevocably tainted. It must be thrown out.
- Democratic institutions, starting with a constitution, to set the foundation for the rule of law, must be created.
- To repeat, an equitable power-sharing structure between the central government and the ethnic states must be established.
- The Tatmadaw must be shrunk, and culturally integrated, to include the forces from the democratic resistance.
- The dictators must be subjected to a war crimes tribunal.

Social development

The initial goal of social development is to facilitate as smooth and peaceful a transition period as possible.

- During the transition itself, there may be a need for foreign peacekeepers, to prevent residual war crimes by the dictators and their supporters.
- Assistance will be required to facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, in particular with de-mining and the supply of household essentials.
- The large population of Chinese migrants that have been allowed into the country under SPDC rule will also need to be considered.

As peace is established and the likely reverse migration back to Burma’s towns and villages occurs, other goals will need to be pursued. These include the protection of cultural traditions and the natural environment, particularly from unregulated commercial development, and the eradication of real poverty.

Whatever steps are taken, political, social or economic, they should not undermine the country’s rich cultural and environmental diversity. Such diversity, Burma’s wide array of cultures and biodiversity hotspots, is what makes the nation special. The cost of development must not extend to the destruction of this diversity.

Regarding poverty, Dictator Watch’s view, which puts us into conflict with most parties, is that it is a non-monetary phenomenon. The common perspective, though, is that poverty is the inability to achieve a certain level of personal or family income (typically from wage-based jobs). Our view is that this measure is one step removed from the real issue, which is the ability to fulfill one’s basic needs. If the financial measure is used, it means, perforce, that all non-monetary societies, including barter societies, are poor.

Basic needs include sufficient nutritious food and clean water, decent medical care, and education. If a society can meet these needs, with limited money, or none at all, it is not poor. Indeed, it may well be wealthy, if in addition to satisfying such needs it has complex and rich values, arts and design, and environmental knowledge and spiritual belief.

Burma’s social development must concentrate on fulfilling basic needs, because under the tyranny of dictatorship it truly has become poor. Malnutrition, disease and under-education are rampant. In addition to political development, this is the area where the greatest initial effort is required. The country needs to develop systems to guarantee that all residents have sufficient food and water, and also establish nation-wide networks of clinics and hospitals, and schools.

As a proviso, though, this does not imply that other infrastructure projects, including roads and energy and communications utilities, need to be rapidly initiated. Roads and energy projects inevitably lead to environmental destruction, and communications development (e.g., the TV) to cultural destruction. Also, they are expensive. A simple test for the direction and pace of Burma’s development is its need to take on external debt. The goal should be to take on no external debt, hence development should be carefully planned and implemented and financing should be sought from external aid sources only in forms where repayment is not required.

Furthermore, the development of Burma must be the responsibility of the people of the country themselves, which in turn has implications for the receipt of external assistance.

Foreign aid almost always has strings attached, including that the recipient societies accept and implement the values and social development model favored by the sources of the aid. Dictator Watch believes that all societies can and should make their own determinations about how they would like to develop, including, if they so choose, to reject the western consumerism-industrialism paradigm that is now being imposed around the world. (Most aid programs are based on a number of assumptions, including: our way is better; people need help – they are unable to help themselves; and the aforementioned perspective that poverty is a monetary phenomenon. All of these are false.)

The people of Burma must create their own development, to ensure that (1) they do it – that they solve their own problems and through this learn the skill of problem solving and also reap the satisfaction of meeting their own needs (versus suffer the loss of self-esteem that comes from relying on others); and (2) that it is consistent with – that it represents positive growth in – their cultural traditions.

The only needs, post-the removal of the dictatorship, for which the people of Burma may require outside assistance include: humanitarian, to relieve the immediate crises caused by the SPDC (e.g., for refugees and internally displaced persons); and to construct a fundamental social infrastructure – one able to provide clean water, nutritious food, medical care, and education. Everything else, including roads, dams, power plants, electrical grids and communication utilities, should be left up to the people themselves, to decide via consensus, not through top down dictates by international institutions, if they truly want and need such things. (Then, if and where they do, the people themselves should fund and build them.)

Lastly, all of the above also implies that economic development is at the bottom of the development list, although multinational corporations and supranational financial institutions will surely argue that it should be the highest priority.

Economic development

Economic development must support social goals (not the other way around). And, more generally, economic institutions should not be society’s dominant institutions. A society designed around institutions whose sole goal is to earn a profit is guaranteed to be dysfunctional.

Returning to the goal to preserve diversity, this is an objective that many societies around the world have wrestled with, and for the most part failed to achieve. In practical terms, one of the most important objectives must be to discourage urbanization, which degrades cultural diversity and also exacerbates poverty. One means to accomplish this is to proceed slowly with the development of the primary influence that motivates urbanization: commercial TV. Here, Burma can learn from the example of Laos, which has no commercial TV (other than Thai TV beamed in by satellite), and which as a consequence has seen little migration to its cities.

Similarly, there is no need to rush in with commercial development, either of consumer or industrial products. The legal and regulatory structure that applies to commercial development, including taxes, permits and land zoning, must be established first. Further, there should be no race to exploit the country’s natural resources. The remaining natural diversity of Burma must be protected at all costs, not only to benefit future generations of Burmese, but also because such habitats and species have an inherent right to exist, and to continue to flourish and evolve, without regard to the needs of people at all.

This implies that resource exploitation should be halted until such time as its own regulatory framework is established (e.g., an Environmental Protection Ministry and related laws), but more importantly until such time as the people of Burma have been informed about the economic development and resource exploitation issues facing the nation and have made their wishes heard.

All of the above objectives and issues can be realized through sectoral prioritization. Rebuilding Burma’s agriculture should be the first priority, so the nation can feed itself. All other sectors, including consumer products, industry, and resource exploitation, can wait.

Other factors complicating the task of economic development include:

- All ill-begotten wealth belonging to the dictators, their families and business partners, including international investors, should be confiscated.
- The SPDC is an illegal regime, hence the contracts it (and its predecessors) have signed are not enforceable. All contracts with international investors should be examined and where appropriate voided or re-bid.
- There is a large outstanding foreign debt, for which debt forgiveness should be sought.

In summary, the development challenge for Burma following the end of the dictatorship will be profound. The scale of the task cannot be overestimated, since a society of approximately fifty million people has limited infrastructure and is unable to fulfill its basic needs. This in turn raises the issue of capacity, of what such a population will be able to accomplish, and also where external offers of assistance should focus. Burma needs a major effort, and assistance, to fulfill the above-described tasks of political and social development. A civil, democratic society, and related institutions, must be designed and implemented, and fundamental social infrastructure constructed, as quickly as possible.

A reasonable time frame for this phase of Burma’s reconstruction would be three to five years.

All other development, including major projects (energy, the construction of new roads – versus the refurbishment of existing roads, etc.), resource exploitation, and consumer and industrial economic development, should essentially be put on hold until the first is achieved.