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Myanmar on the march
POSTED | 23:33 PM | 08-04-2014

Myanmar on the march

-- By Songpol Kaopatumtip

Since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration took office in 2011, the country’s political environment has seen many liberal changes. These changes have prompted Western nations to lift economic sanctions and provide support through financial aid, thus helping Myanmar rebuild as a democratic nation and strengthening its ability to participate in the forthcoming Asean Economic Community (AEC).

However, basic sectors such as health, education, social services and the economy continue to struggle. These and other challenges have raised the question of whether the country is truly ready to join the big club.

At present, Myanmar possesses the lowest per capita GDP among the10-member Asean bloc, at US$875, while Singapore tops the group at $50,130. Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are the mid-ranking countries, with GDPs of $9,941, $5,116, $3,563, and $2,341 respectively. Vietnam and Laos, at $1,403 and $1,279 respectively, still score higher for GDP than Cambodia and Myanmar.

Of all the challenges that Myanmar expects to face in the near future, surely one of the toughest will be meeting expectations to increase its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by the time the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is launched in 2015.

In an interview with, Mr Horst Rudolf, ambassador retired and analyst for Asian affairs, addresses this challenge and other important issues in Myanmar.

Q: How optimistic are you about Myanmar's transition to full democracy?

Actually, I am quite optimistic, but the word “full democracy” is just a theoretical term -- nearly no country in the world can pretend to be a “full democracy”. But meaning the opposite of “full dictatorship” we should consider every progress to establish the basic human and citizen's rights, like in good democratic states, a positive move.

In this respect Myanmar under the leadership of President Thein Sein has made considerable progress. Mainly, the newly-elected parliaments have done and are still doing an admirable work to convert the country into a “State of Law”, which it was not at all for half a century. And even if only a part of the work has been done, this is more than most parliaments of any other country could achieve in such a short period of time -- just compare, how long legislation takes in so-called democratic countries, like the US, Germany or even Thailand.

Besides hundreds of laws introduced, which start working step by step, political prisoners were released in thousands, freedom of the press and free speech have made much progress, and business opportunities have been opened to many people -- including foreigners -- which before were controlled and run only by government and/or military persons.

The present Myanmar government is funding its politics on the “Seven Basic Principles” of the 2008 constitution, which stipulates that Myanmar “practices a genuine, disciplined multi-party democratic system,” in sweetened language a “Discipline Flourishing Democracy.” What first sounds somewhat exotic, means a specific model of democracy, not exactly a Western-style system, but in some cases proving successful in other transitional countries. The most famous -- and for a long period successful -- example of such a “controlled” democracy is the African state of Ghana. So, Myanmar is not the first country to apply this rule of government.

Former Ghana President Jerry Rawlings, who took power several times by military coups, realized that introducing Western styles of democracy in his country did not work out -- since the elected parliamentarians and civil governments abused their power mostly for their own aims. Hence, with his final coup, Rawlings re-opened the way for another round of free elections, but since then menaced the elected politician to have a strong eye on them and their work in favor of the country -- a “disciplined democracy”, supervised (or guaranteed) by military power.

Although the Myanmar model is different in many respects, and the military are still a powerful part of the system -- not just an outside control -- the healthy effect has been working out brilliantly: very different from other “new democracies” or dictator-freed countries, like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and some others. In fact, the parliament in Naypyidaw has been doing a rather good job, working very hard and disciplined -- a miracle, considering the past decades and total lack of political freedom. Now, more and more laws are introduced and hence more and more elements of a “full democracy” are emerging.

Q: What will be the military's role in this transition?

As said, the good part of the still strong military involvement is the stabilizing effect on political procedures and -- ironically -- the delay in introducing a “full democracy.” Many “democrats” -- including for sure Daw Aung San Suu Kyi -- would object to this statement, but the examples of other “half-democracies” like the former Ghana or Singapore tell another story.

The role of the military in this transition up to now has been much better than anybody ever thought -- for two very personal and surprising reasons: former president-dictator Than Shwe always was a strategic thinker, and not only a power-seeker. Although he had to sack former secret service boss and later Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, he understood that Khin Nyunt’s initial plan -- the so-called “Road Map,” was a clever model for a controlled and safe transition to a more open system -- now called “disciplined multi-party democracy.” Again, not a “full democracy,” but a starting one.

Even most of his own military people did not fully understand that the Senior General always followed this Road Map -- for the good of his own future, but even for the good of the country, something nobody expected before.

The second reason was that Than Shwe introduced or inthroned Thein Sein as his “successor”, a rather honest and balanced man, who would not question Than Shwe's power in the background and also not endanger the continuation of the Road Map. Then, when it turned out that Thein Sein proved to be an excellent choice and did a marvelous job right from the beginning, Than Shwe again showed his strength in “strategic thinking”: instead of fearing competition from Thein Sein -- as many of his former hardliners suggested -- he calmly but strongly supported Thein Sein, even against many powerful critics inside the military ranks. The result was a huge leap for Myanmar -- and a peaceful and happy retirement for General Than Shwe.

Now, it is clear that further progress will need a gradual retreat of military power, to get Myanmar nearer to a “full democracy”. But this is not the main point: as long as the military are deeply involved in running the country, their ability to improve and “civilize” -- meaning modernize -- the country further is the key ingredient. For the next 5-10 years, they should do like Than Shwe himself: retire from politics, but keep some control -- to be realistic.

Apparently, this is something Aung San Suu Kyi does not want to recognize: she is pushing for “real full democracy” immediately. But this is not realistic, as the large number of military people in the country (the former “brass”) do not trust her, or any other civilian, to guarantee their safety -- and mainly their funds, legally acquired or not, meaning their peaceful and guaranteed retirement.

Hence, we shall see the military role diminishing in a very slow and considered -- or negotiated -- way, and for sure not before the next elections. That is why Aung San Suu Kyi may be electable as a future president -- as even Thein Sein proposed recently -- but she will not see a considerable change of the old constitution -- at least not the destruction of military presence as a political power. Such essential changes will happen only later.

Q: And the roles of Aung San Suu Kyi as well as ethnic groups?

As said, Aung San Suu Kyi is an important factor, but may be not the key factor for changes. But for sure she is a most important and renowned personality to prove that fighting for freedom, human and basic rights is worth the sacrifice and can work on the long run, even if “full democracy” is not coming today or tomorrow yet.

Much more important in fact is the situation of ethnic groups and their future share of the country called “Myanmar” now. But outsiders should not forget that on both sides there are many hardliners, interest searchers and even drug lords. The fact that Burmese military were the oppressors and “bad guys” for a long time does not mean that all their enemies are the “good guys” -- as many western politician seemed to believe.

And following the above explanation of the military role and position: the military maintain that their (unreduced) power is a necessary element to negotiate with the ethnic groups. Fortunately, President Thein Sein seems to understand that showing military power is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to sit on the table and negotiate a common future. So, intensifying peace negotiations with ethnic groups is a top priority, elections coming or not.

Q: What are the necessary fundamentals and framework that the Thein Sein government must establish to improve the national economy?

First, he must “sanitize” the legal system, which means pushing legislation to utmost speed and quality, and then build confidence that in the future laws, rules and regulations will be respected, mostly by the government/military themselves.

Because, for decades, there was no state of law, no sticking to rules and regulations. Many contracts were broken, and connections were more important than signatures. Hence, investors, business people and most citizen lost confidence. From an economic point of view, only a small group of people were privileged, rich or powerful enough to do business, and equally, there were no healthy government priorities to run the national economy, largely due to lack of knowledge and lack of goodwill.

The main “procedure” to run and speed up business activities were connections and corruption. No country could stop prevailing corruption easily, but if Myanmar wants to prosper those “bad habits” should be reduced, even if during the present “gold rush” things go the other way round.

Q: What would be your advice for foreign investors interested in investing in Myanmar?

The first and most important is: do your homework! Myanmar is one of the most attractive but also most difficult countries in the world to do business. Take ample time to learn about all rules and regulations -- and how they work in reality, not on paper. Check with established companies and other successful businesses operating in the country. No need to rush, as there are huge opportunities for many years to come. In fact, many “early birds” failed already, and those investors ended up with a “bloody nose.”

On the other hand, do not listen to unchecked “experts”, “advisors”, “consultants” and people who claim to “understand Myanmar.” Doing business in Myanmar is at least as difficult as in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, but it may be even more rewarding, as there are plenty of opportunities.

Q: But there are other factors undermining these changes, such as the ongoing Kachin conflict, the recent attack on protesters at a copper mine in northern Myanmar, and communal violence in Rakhine and Meikhtila states, which have all cast a dark shadow on the country’s reform agenda.

Yes, and there are riots in Bangkok, airline strikes in Germany, financial crashes in the United States and the occupation of Crimea. In short: there is never an easy way to the future -- even if the beginning looks bright.

There is no major country in the world which just could establish a “reform agenda” and put it to practice in real life. Even the USA has not managed to do even half of its reforms, from health care to a logical tax system.

In summary, compared to many countries in the world today, and after half a century of military dictatorship, present-day Myanmar is still a tough challenge but equally on a good way to a better future. They will fail or will succeed -- but only journalists and politicians can predict the future.


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