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BURMESE WAY TO DEMOCRACY
BURMESE WAY TO DEMOCRACY
DEFENCE of national security against the threat of disintegration
in Burma has been a classic diversionary tactic for the military
government in legitimately ruling the country.
But armed insurgency in Burma has apparently faded and the excuse
proves no longer effective. Burmese generals, therefore, are busy
building a new image and drafting a new constitution which allows
them to play politics while wearing military uniforms.
A certain amount of authoritarian rule in Asia is beneficial to
economic development. So authoritarianism seems to be an
ideological model for Burma.
The Indonesian concept of dual function under which the military
has a role in both defence and politics clearly appeals to the
Although the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) sees
the recent release of its most important political rival, Aung
San Suu Kyi, as a dangerous playing card, it is a price they have
decided to pay for political stability.
International pressure must be eased to keep the economy vibrant.
The Indonesian comparison has certainly occurred to Burma's
junta. It is now bent on imposing a new constitution which, like
Indonesia's, would guarantee a leading political role for the
The draft constitution would also exclude from high political
office anyone who has lived abroad for a long time. It also
includes a provision clearly aimed at Aung San Suu Kyi that
prevents anyone who is married to a foreigner from assuming the
The first political struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of
the opposition National League for Democracy(NLD) and 1991 winner
of the Nobel peace prize, is inevitably to participate in
the drafting of the new constitution.
Work was stopped in March and is expected to start again in
October this year, according to an officer of the Burmese
After her unconditional release Aung San Suu Kyi immediately
spoke with senior NLD members.
According to U Hla Win, an NLD member and MP for Koh Song
(Victoria Point), NLD members nationwide, except members from the
Shan state and Kachin, got in touch with senior NLD members in
Rangoon after her release.
"She first held talks with recently released Tin Oo and Kyi
Maung_ the two senior members of the NLD, which she helped found
in 1988," U Hla Win said.
In 1990, with its leader in detention, the NLD swept nationwide
parliamentary elections, winning 392 out of 485 seats. But the
military regime refused to recognise the results and said it was
writing a new constitution instead.
"Everything is uncertain and we cannot make any comments about
the constitution being drafted by the Slorc. The constitution is
not yet completed and we have never seen its essence in detail,"
said U Hla Win.
Military leaders and civilians always have different views on
democracy. The democratic system practiced in the West
cannot be the same as in the East because there are differences
in custom, traditions and ethos, reasoned an officer in Rangoon.
"Therefore, the democratic system will vary from one country to
another. In practising the democratic system, we believe the most
important thing will be to meet the food, shelter and clothing
needs of our people," the officer said.
The disappearance of armed insurgents in the country does not
mean the country has gotten rid of all dangers, said the officer.
Impediments on the way to modernise and develop the country may
still emerge and some people may still try to turn back the
But there are grounds for doubting whether Burma can emulate j
Indonesia. Before Indonesia took off, it had in place two
conditions for sustained economic growth: Low inflation and a
convertible currency. Burma has neither.
Inflation, fuelled by wasteful military spending and commodity
shortages, is running close to 40 percent. The currency is an
obstacle to both trade and investment.
Even though the regime is more self-confident, it still regards
real political compromise as a traffic stopper for Burma's
As part of the government's effort to rejoin the world economy,
the general who oversees the Finance Ministry has been to
Washington asking the World Bank and IMF to resume lending. But
they continue to spurn Burma, officially because of its economic
policies which are, of course, hard to separate from political
Business apparently began to blossom shortly after the Slorc
scrapped its socialist programme and turned toward a
market-oriented economy. To welcome the coming tourism year next
year, the government has restored tourist attractions such as the
Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon's most important landmark.
The junta's selling point is an economy that grew more than 8 per
cent this fiscal year, according to official figures. Foreign
investors have entered gingerly, most of them focusing on the
extraction of fish, timber, gems, oil, and gas.
Even the consumer market has picked up noticeably. New cars
cruise the streets of Rangoon, formerly a sombre grid of
dilapidated buildings and nearly empty roads. Shops and
street-market stalls: whose shelves were bare a few years ago are
laden with imported goods, most of them courtesy of recently
legalised border trade with Thailand and China.
The official exchange rate is about six kyat to one dollar: The
unofficial rate is over 110. But people find they are expected to
pay for electricity and water in kyat convened at the official
Such foreign investment goes mainly into building new hotels.
Tourism brings in some hard currency, but Burma has little of the
manufacture industry that has powered other Asian economies.
Allowing more leeway to private traders, and swapping gems and
timber for Chinese consumer goods will take the economy only so
During a stroll through the roads in Rangoon, one can sense the
beginning of a vibrant private economy. Construction of five star
hotels is conspicuous, and electrical goods from developed
countries are piled high on the stalls.
In downtown Rangoon, black market goods and tribal artifacts are
spread out on blankets and tables. Rangoon is welcoming tourism
year, as do those hoping for prosperity.
Bustling markets would be normal elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But
which spent a generation searching for the "road to socialism",
even small-scale private enterprise is a novelty. The military
junta abandoned socialist autarchy and proclaimed an "open door"
policy in 1988.
The military government claimed it managed to increase the -GDP
to 6.8 per cent in 1994-95, and that the figure would rise to 7.7
per cent for 1995-96. Still, it is particularly keen to get hard
currency from foreigners to help rebuild infrastructure.
But "Asian Way" authoritarianism is not necessarily a guarantee
for success like that achieved by a small island country like
Singapore, where there are no uneducated farmers in rural areas.
Absolute authority might be a boon to a market-oriented economy,
but environmental problems and social unrest could arise in the
Inequitable income distribution, labour migration, prostitution,
Aids, crime, traffic jams and pollution could be the unwanted
consequences of Slorc's plans to appease and control Burma's 45
Although signs of those problems are still not apparent, the
government is generating dissatisfaction among middle-class
people and Rangoon residents who suffered from authoritarian rule
and a policy to encourage economic growth.
"The government always claims i t has successfully improved the
country's economy, but I just doubt: Whose economy grows?" asked
a Rangoon resident.
"Economic growth, in fact, has affected only a few privileged
people, not the country as a whole. Does ongoing international
investment and Asean policy of constructive engagement really
benefit the common people of Burma?"
An attempt to enforce discipline is widely evident along the
roads in Rangoon. Strict rules are imposed on street vendors
selling goods in front of department stores, and uniformed
traffic police keep a wary eye on motorists.
As the government needs more I foreign currency, old buildings
considered by Slorc to be ugly and an eyesore for foreign
tourists and investors are dismantled to make way for five-star
hotels, especially around Sule pagoda.
Residents on a site earmarked X for three five-star hotels
received compensation from the government of about US$20,000 per
~room while the genuine price is $60,000.
"Where has the remaining money gone? It's gone into the
government's pocket," a Rangoon resident said. "They, however,
are considered lucky when compared With other people who were
forced to leave without compensation."
"Today, poor people living in old buildings on main roads are
Forced to leave, to pave the way for luxury hotels or department
stores," said one resident.
Besides the benefits from land sales to foreign investors, the
government is also able to solve the problem of overcrowding in
Rangoon. People were evacuated from downtown to Hlaing Thar Yar,
about 18 km from downtown Rangoon.
Without facilities and infrastructure, the new place is on a
paddy field along road No.5, where the government plans to
establish a "satellite town." The government also plans to
establish an, industrial zone on a paddy field at the opposite
side of the main road to accommodate foreign investors.
In an attempt to open a new market place in a suburb of Rangoon,
the government announced plans to collect business tax from
downtown businessmen, mostly Chinese and Indians. Anyone defying
the new tax order will be fined $500. And the tax is likely to
increase in the upcoming year.
Higher taxes are indirectly meant to force these people out of
The government has also imposed higher tap water and electricity
fees for Rangoon residents.
"The cost of living in Rangoon is getting higher. The electricity
fee was raised from I kyat per unit [last year's price] to 2.5
kyat this year. Fees for tap water, which used to be free, and
garbage collection are both 50 US cents per month," a Rangoon
They [the generals] think they know everything. They can do it,"
said a middle-class resident.
"If I see you can use your camera skillfully, and I claim I can
do it like you, I would be stupid immediately," he said, noting
that taking good pictures does not mean only pressing the
shutter. "You badly need ability and experience to command the
complicated camera and knowledge of news, all of which cannot be
Another resident said: "The only thing they want to do now is to
show the world that they can create an economic boom under
"The ruling Burmese generals once introduced the 'Burmese way to
Socialism' but it was a failure and had to be scrapped. Now they
have presented a new way Burmese way to Democracy. I wonder which
way we will go next if they fail again."
Typed by the Research Department of the ABSDF(MTZ)