Burma, the Opposition and Economic Development
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Burma, the Opposition and Economic Development

By DAVID I. STEINBERG Friday, February 20, 2009


The "Special Statement" by the National League for Democracy (NLD) on February 12 focused on the two-decades-old question of dialogue between it and the ruling military junta in Burma.

In a shocking and inexcusable paragraph, however, the NLD admitted, almost as an afterthought, its collective failures to pay attention to economic development of the country and the well-being of the Burmese people.

In its seventh paragraph, it stated, "Another point we discussed with [the] special envoy was about economic development for our country. NLD representatives responded that it could not be discussed as we still did not know the causes for economic development and how to bring it about."

This is a remarkable statement of both ineptitude and the disregard for the well-being of the peoples of that country who have severely suffered daily economic hardships. The statement is inept because there are still in Burma, but not a part of policy decision-making no doubt, first-class Burmese technocrats, including economists, who have professional knowledge and experience on economic development issues.

These local experts with solid international experience have had extensive contacts with the NLD senior leaders and no doubt have provided the NLD with relevant policy advice on the subject.

The NLD could easily seek their economic development views. The United Nations Development Programme, with resident personnel in Rangoon, has undoubtedly done the same. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank have all provided missions to that country in recent years. A wide variety of international nongovernmental organizations with senior staff in the country could contribute to this developmental process as well.

Judging from the aforementioned NLD statement, it seems that the NLD considers economic development, and thus the well-being of the people and their improvement in life chances, a lower priority on its official agenda.

Democratic citizens and governments share the NLD's goals of democratization, reconciliation and dialogue in Burma. However, this statement comes across as though the NLD leadership prefers to keep the already impoverished people in poverty until a political agreement is reached between the junta and it—an extremely unlikely prospect.

To be sure, successive Burmese military governments since 1962 have mishandled Burma’s national economy and created 47 years of economic hardships for the bulk of the population. The NLD leadership's initial open support for economic sanctions against the country and continuation of holding the country's economy—and along with it public welfare—hostage does nothing to advance the cause of either freedom or development.

Whether one agrees or disagrees about the past imposition of sanctions and their effects is a separate policy matter from this issue of denying both the capacity to understand what is needed to improve the lives of the people and implicitly the moral responsibility that results from such astounding ignorance. In the interests of transparency and for the record, I will state I have been against economic sanctions even before the US instituted them because I felt they would not accomplish their goal—regime change. They never have.

Although the NLD leadership has been persecuted and its organizational capacity emasculated, if any political party comes out in favor of ignoring the betterment in the lives of the people, it is likely to lose whatever popular appeal or moral authority it may still have.

That the military has ignored the Buddhist precepts of good governance that call for the caring of the people is no excuse for the NLD to ignore the issue of the people's livelihoods, which is what economic development is all about.

The State Peace and Development Council government has failed the country in economic development terms in spite of its accrual of substantial foreign exchange reserves. That the main opposition party and its leadership, so widely admired worldwide for their courage in standing up for principles, has, in effect, refused to deal with the issue prompts a profound sense of pessimism for the future of the country and her people.

David I. Steinberg is a specialist on Burma, North Korea, South Korea, Southeast Asia and US policy in Asia. He is a professor at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

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Michael Sannerstedt Wrote:
I was stunned and quite frankly outraged at the response from Kyaw S Win to Steinberg's article. I have been here in Thailand for 4 years working with Burmese people as a volunteer. I came here to help and support the Burmese people, like hundreds of other supporters from different countries. I don't want thanks or praise for that, but i have a right to comment on people who for all their education make disgraceful slurs.
I think there are as many Burmese who, like myself, are frustrated at the lack of movement and progress being made by the UN, other bodies and even within the pro-democracy movement.
I supported sanctions, but now I see it as a stumbling block. It's not working. I supported UN efforts, but realise it's a regional problem that will be resolved here by the Burmese, not 1000 miles away in the USA, Europe or the UN or by, as Pro Win refers to as, "whites". There are some excellent politic minds in the PDM.
I have been heartened by several articles in Irrawaddy these past few months, which have opened dialogue and debate on these matters. There is quite simply stagnation here. Debate, discussion and opinions are part of democracy, use them to move forward. I would say read Klien on capitalism, zmag.org,Fisk on the Middle east and Chomsky to name just a few. Broaden your understanding of what is happening in the world and put it into context with the problems of Burma.
Sounding like the Junta isn't, in my view, a way forward Professor Win

sandar Wrote:
100 percent agree with Steinberg.

Kyaw S Win Wrote:
As a Burmese professor in a foreign university abroad, I am outraged by the stupidity of Steinberg's attack on the NLD and the dignity of Burmese civilization and the army as a whole.

Do you, with your wits and foresight, notice this is the same sort of racist offense to colonize and kill Burmese heroes from the 1820s to 1948, till General Aung San gave us freedom from the whites. Read “Orientalism” by Said, you will see how these systematized attacks to belittle the dignity and uniqueness of Eastern thought and peoples (Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine) are committed by racist and prejudiced intellectuals in rich nations who care so little about Burmese people, the NLD or the reputation of the Burmese as a whole, globally.

The NLD, and even the military are great, dignified systems poor Burma has left to reconstruct after British colonization, Fascism, Ne Win's dictatorship and the chaos of the generals. Please read the book by Professor Thant Myint Oo and you will see how frightening the colonizers' attempts were to destroy the national reputation (negative PR) of Burma.

It is a shame your paper publishes bigots like Steinberg. Please accept my sincere protest to take down his article, which is mere rubbish to attack Burma/Burmese institutions (NLD, military, community leaders).

e.r. Wrote:
The only way forward to improve lives of people in Burma is the end of dictatorship. The regime is responsible for the painful situation, not sanctions. The regime has a lot of money in their pockets (China, Thailand and India provide it), but people don't see an ounce. Those who say that sanctions are the problem are just excusing a criminal regime. He's basically lying. For Burmese people, sanctions make no difference. They're doomed to suffer anyway.

Probably there's never been a case in history where sanctions were so rightly addressed to the main culprits of a collective drama. If they don't fully work, that is just because they're bypassed by our Asian neighbors, not because they miss the target.

Nyunt Shwe Wrote:
I fully agree with Mr Steinberg. Sanctions hurt the people. If the NLD still supports sanctions, then it is intentionally letting the people suffer hardships. Sanctions never win. As one scholar said, "Southeast Asia's Myanmar is not Africa's South Africa."

Adam Selene Wrote:
To Jeff Thant: I didn't state in my comment that the NLD should participate (although I actually think they should, because there is no alternative). What I did say, though, is that if any party wishes to be involved in governing a country they should be fully prepared to tackle economical problems, of which there are many in Burma. As Mr Steinberg pointed out, the NLD isn't prepared. Of course, they are harassed by the regime. But if they can prepare statements and build an organization they can write a serious economic policy paper also.

If they get a chance to get involved in some way in government they should not only take it, but they should do everything not to blow it as that will cost the democracy movement a lot of support and goodwill. And they have a responsibility to all those people that voted or will for them too.

Politics is about working with what you have, not about doing nothing because reality falls short of your ideals.

Australia Wrote:
Dr Steinberg,

For many years there's been endless rhetoric, discussion, comment and debate on the many issues relating to the Burma economic situation. It would be refreshing to see an initiative from the world’s leading academic, business and political people to bring together the many diverse ideas and philosophies in a practical forum. I'm sure if the people of Burma could see some real strategies discussed and proposed it would give hope and inspiration.

Victor Zaw Wrote:
I absolutely agree with the professor. I wish more and more people would understand the real problem of the country, not just from the news.

George Than Setkyar Heine Wrote:
Yes, I do agree with most people saying, "You still do not understand the situation on the ground in Burma” to Dr Steinberg. What he failed to take note of is that Than Shwe and his thugs have no desire whatsoever to enhance the lives and prosperity of the people of Burma since Day One of their rule, other than to enrich themselves, their cohorts and cronies, and keep a half million brainwashed men fully armed and fed, to let loose on the people if they fail to keep in line.

Putting the blame on the NLD and others in Burma for today's economic chaos, self-testified to our well-learned Burma expert's ignorance of what is really going on in the military-ruled country.

If he is not aware of it yet, he is doing a great service to Than Shwe by writing this sort of - whatever you want to call it - article. These kind of written pieces by such ilk of Burma experts like Dr Steinberg and others hold me in awe, if not consternation, specifically, at this crucial and vital juncture, while the NLD and all our brave brethren, including Daw Suu, Min Ko Naing and others in Burma and alien lands are countering Than Shwe, while he does his best to impose his idiosyncrasy of “disciplined democracy” on the people of Burma via his seven step road map for eternal military rule.

Lastly, in place of his negative input under the pretext of contributing “something” for Burma's freedom and democracy, I would much appreciate if Dr Steinberg could take a trip to Burma and render his “advice” or “expertise” in person, most probably to the NLD leadership in Burma and most desirably to Than Shwe himself, before he [Than Shwe] puts ropes through the noses of the people like oxen and herds them into a life of “disciplined democracy” unto eternity.

Jeff Thant Wrote:
Dr Steinberg,

After years of your status being "a specialist on Burma," you still don't understand the situation on the ground in Burma. Even if the NLD were to abandon its support for economic sanctions, the regime would still fail to improve the economy. How could you justify a regime that sells gas to Thailand and spends its foreign currency in building a city near nowhere and feeding a 500,000-strong military, while effectively cutting much needed electricity in the entire country and leaving the lives of its citizens in perils?

For Adam Selene: Asking the NLD to participate in the coming election is nothing but ridiculous. Once beaten, twice shy.

For U Aung Zayya: Who are affluent—the generals or the NLD leaders?

Free Man Wrote:
Dear Professor,

Thank you for your interest in Burma and your opinion. However, I do question the objectivity of your analysis of the NLD given the kind of constant harassment and persecution it has to suffer at the hands of these dictators.

Htet Aung Wrote:
Dear Dr Steinberg,

As a first-class scholar of the world on the Burma issue, if you can visit the NLD headquarters in Rangoon and give your insightful advice for the economic development of Burma, I'm sure that the NLD will warmly welcome you. But before giving your advice, first you should test your capacity to be able to visit the NLD. This small task will teach you practically how you should speak out about Burma. And you will find out an equal challenge that a domestic economist is facing if doing so.

Yes, the NLD is focusing on "two-decade-old dialogue." It has been trying to meet not only the SPDC, but also its beloved people in many ways during these two decades. Please don't distort the sacrifices of the party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, many high-level party leaders and thousands of party members. I believe your first-class reasoning power can see whether these sacrifices are for their own sakes.

The NLD has consistently welcomed every individual inside and outside the country who can contribute to the betterment of the people in Burma. It has been trying to expand its public sphere and public consultation throughout the discourse. Burma badly needs solutions to the current political deadlock and economic crisis. Please answer these simple questions: Can you confidently announce to the world that the regime's national economic statistics are true and reliable? Have you seen the regime's national budget expenditure for the last budget year? If so, can you say this budget expenditure is true and reliable? Do you think you should suggest that the NLD, as a political party, should speak out about "the causes of the economic development" without having reliable economic statistics and data? As a world-class scholar, do you think it is fair to judge the NLD, based just on "two sentences" in the statement and ignoring the 20-year struggle of the party?

As a Burmese, I thank you for your long-term interest on Burmese issues. But I would like to suggest you again: Please make this small, simple attempt to visit the NLD headquarters.

Mo Aye, East Yorkshire, UK Wrote:
Professor Steinberg should be congratulated for highlighting an inconvenient truth.

However, it is probably inappropriate to view the NLD as a monolithic organization: Aung San Suu Kyi's advisors and associates span the political spectrum. They are united only in their opposition to the military. It is likely that they have un-reconciled and possibly un-reconcilable ideas of how to achieve development. Hence, the apparent policy hiatus.

There will be no lasting democracy in Burma without a critical mass of the educated middle-class in the society, which forms a responsible and enlightened electorate. The NLD's long-standing advocacy for sanctions pending political settlement precludes the emergence of such an entity and therefore undermines the viability of any future democratically elected administration in Burma.

"Things will go on as they have always gone on before ... that is, badly" - Benjamin the Mule, in George Orwell's “Animal Farm.”

Kevin Min, San Diego Wrote:
As a person who has been against the economic sanctions on Burma, I totally agree with Professor Steinberg's comments. The NLD seems to be out of touch with reality under the chaotic leadership of a lady who has more admirers abroad than in Burma. We need "change" in the opposition party leadership and that change must come sooner.

SAT Wrote:
If the US's intent is to improve people's lives in Myanmar [Burma], it must find a new way forward. The government of Myanmar (SPDC) won't make a move.

U Aung Zayya Wrote:
First of all, the top affluent group at the NLD has no need to worry about their daily survival, as opposed to the millions of impoverished Burmese people whose lives have been worsened year after year. Ordinary people face daily survival risks from hunger and health problems due to extreme poverty and the NLD policymakers are still neglecting the variables for economic development and people’s misery.

Because of sanctions, China, India and Asean have all been reaping the resources at bargain prices and reselling them to developed nations while leaving Burma alone pathetically. There is no chance that the junta would have transition out of this squeeze on the people of Burma as it would have enough assets with or without sanctions, given the current geopolitics. Only evenly distributed economic development has a chance of transition as it will raise the level of the people and thus bring stable change. The gist is that the weaker the people, the stronger the rulers, and it is not just to gamble with other people's lives.

Adam Selene Wrote:
Sadly there is no denying Mr Steinberg's analysis. If the NLD participates in the elections and gets involved in government as a result of that it will be crucial to show some quick improvements in the living standards of the Burmese people. If not, chances are they will lose popular support sooner rather than later. To be able to do so, a solid economic policy is as essential as it is swift (and planned beforehand), financially supported by foreign powers.

Win Tun Wrote:
Dear Dr Steinberg,

Thanks for your interest in Burma, but you are not Burmese and you do not understand about Burma. Because of your pro-murderer Than Shwe stand, please do not criticise our beloved National League for Democracy policy. What the NLD is saying is that it is not the right time to talk about economic developement in Burma.

Simon Billenness Wrote:
This is a particularly nasty attack by Steinberg against the NLD.

It is clear from his cursory reference to the junta's imprisonment and killing of NLD leaders and members that Steinberg either fails to fully understand or willfully ignores the crippling damage that the junta has deliberately inflicted on the NLD's policy capacity.

Under these circumstances to choose to focus his criticism on the NLD and project upon the NLD the junta's own "ineptitude and the disregard for the well-being of the peoples of that country," Steinberg has produced an analysis that is as sloppy as it is morally repugnant.

When one wonders what economic analysis Steinberg would produce if he were a continually harassed and imprisoned Burmese NLD economist instead of a privileged American academic at Georgetown.

Edwin Wrote:
Very well said! Finally somebody who dares to say that the NLD doesn't have, a perfect solution either.

Yin Min Kyi Wrote:
I disagree with this article since I view it as based on a modernist viewpoint of "development." There are plenty of countries in the world that are "underdeveloped," although they have been trading with "developed" countries and getting support from the IMF, the World Bank, etc, or getting suggestions from the UN.

I believe it is the usual biased analysis on a post-colonial country. I agree that there should be consideration for the economic welfare of the country. However, a complex problem deserves complex analysis. For instance we could analyze how much the government could have helped its citizens only if it decided to change is distribution and redistribution policies/mandates internally.

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