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DAWN Jan-Feb 96
Burma's economy will heal only after political reform
By Khin Maung Win
The State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) of Burma, as
encouraged by ASEAN nations, is attempting to overcome its' political
crisis by creating economic development. Economic reforms by Slorc in
Burma can not be expected to reproduce the economic development
experienced in ASEAN nations. The peculiarities of Burma's situation must
be taken into account when considering if economic development in Burma
can really be obtained.
Firstly, Slorc and government infrastructure in Burma are not good enough
to efficiently run a market oriented economy. Slorc members have expertise
in shooting, but are unfamiliar with market economics. Good infrastructure
is essential prior to any economic reform and development. Infrastructure
and services under the present military government in Burma can not meet
the actual needs of economic development. All the ASEAN nations started
economic planing and building up infrastructures long ago in the 1960's
during the days when Burma was the richest country in the region. China, a
country experiencing rapid economic development, started changes and
implementation of necessary policies twenty years ago.
Second, a properly functioning legal system and respect for the rule of
law also plays an important role. It is needed to enforce laws, through
the concept of the rule of law, to guarantee private ownership and the
legality of contracts between individuals and private firms. Daw Aung San
Su Kyi, in recent interviews with the BBC (Burmese Service) and AFP,
stressed the importance of the rule of law for economic development.
Burma is at present incapable of providing not only infrastructure and
government services, but also a legal system to meet the standards of a
Third, a crucial weak point which deters Slorc's economic development is a
lack of knowledge by people about the market economy due to the
mismanagement of the education system. This is a result of the system of
education by the totalitarian regime that forced all the students to learn
the so-called Burmese Way to Socialism. The Generals of the totalitarian
government propagated capitalism as an economy of exploitation and social
injustice. On the other hand, the regime provided a planed economic system
for every body in the country that had to learned in all levels of
education. The people who have to play an important role in Slorc's
designated market economy are the students who have learnt about nothing
but the planed economy for three decades. The education system under Slorc
went from bad to worse. Universities, colleges, institutes and all school
levels are often closed and reopened depending on the political needs of
Slorc. Even schools are often closed in some parts of Burma in order to
force the students to work on government projects such railway
construction in Tenisseriam region, southern Burma.
An adequate educational program or reform has not yet been designed for a
basic knowledge of the market economy. In economically developing
countries like ASEAN nations, computer science training and vocational
training providing knowledge and methods to run private firms, are
occasionally arranged, but not in Burma. Employees in Burmese tourist
agencies are not expected to receive proper training; government services
are not ready yet, but Visit Myanmar Year has come. According to Prof.
Khin Maung Kyi, a Burmese Economist who contributed to Burma Debate
Bulletin about Visit Myanmar Year, the promotion will result in negative
rather than positive publicity.
Fourth, one obstacle to Slorc's market economy is the regular increase of
inflation. There may be several reasons for inflation in other economies
but in Burma it is due to high government expenditure. In a market
economy, the input of money into the market is ideally balanced with the
Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This method, also known as monetary policy,
is important in controlling inflation. Burma's GDP declined with the
introduction of the planed economy while government expenditure regularly
increased because the regime extended its coercive agencies such as the
army, police and intelligence networks. As is common in most planed
economies, the Burmese government financed expenditure by printing more
money without upholding or balancing the GDP. Finally it results in
regular increase in inflation. Burmese totalitarian governments also
exercised a unique method to solve the inflation problem. That was to
outlaw particular bank notes and this happened three times in thirty
Even though some of Slorc indicators show increase of GDP at 6- 8 percent
annually, assumed GDP increase can not meet government expenses. After
Slorc came to power, the extension of the army from 150,000 to 500,000
troops and the increase of military offensives against armed ethnic and
democratic groups expended much of the national income; between 50-70%,
according to some commentators. It is an obvious fact that the inflation
problem has moved from bad to worse under Slorc due to government expenses
exceeding national production. In an interview with the BBC (Burmese
Service), Prof. Mya Maung of Boston College, a Burmese Economist,
emphasized the inflation problem of Burma's market economy as Slorc is
injecting more money into the market than the control of monetary policy
When China transformed its economy into a functional market economy, its
currency was devalued to lower inflation. Many economist have advised
Slorc to devalue the Burmese currency "Kyat". Something between the black
and official exchange rates is often advocated, the most preferential rate
is 60 Kyats for 1 US$( official 1 US$= 6 Kyats, black 1US$= 130 Kyats).
Slorc does not dare to devalue because the problem predictable after
devaluation. The immediate jump in the price of goods, basic foods and
essential services may lead to another mass upheaval. Furthermore, foreign
loans will be another big problem.
Fifth, foreign investment can not increase the number of jobs because the
investments being made are neither labor-intensive nor involve technology
transfer. Slorc is perhaps expecting too much from foreign investments.
Economists like professor Khin Maung Kyi have pointed out that foreign
investments in Burma are not labor-intensive industries which create more
local jobs, but capital-intensive industries which create few jobs.
According to Prof. Khin Maung Kyi 12.7 million US$ investment in tourism,
a capital-intensive industry, will create only 200 jobs while the same
amount of investment in an electronics plant or garment factory creates
incomparably more jobs. Slorc officers and investors from TOTAL explained
to local people how the gas pipeline project, which overall cost of first
phase is 1 billion US$, will create jobs for them: but only a few dozen
local people have been employed. Inflation in other economies often
coincides with full or a reasonable rate of employment. In contrast,
Burma's inflation coincides with a high rate of unemployment. This is
proved by the fact that laborers and sex workers are leaving for Thailand,
intellectuals are leaving for Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and some western
countries to seek employment they cannot find in Burma.
The assumption Slorc has to agree is not "let-us do" that Slorc can not be
able to do, but letting the problem to be solved in the proper way which
nature of problem requires. Nonetheless Slorc may knows reality, its ego
not to accept reality is real problem. Only switching from planed economy
to so-called market oriented economy will not easily bring the country
into economic prosperity which Slorc is expecting in order to overcome the
present political crisis. Burmese people will not allow the military to
control the economy again as successive military governments have
controlled last thirty four years- the experiment resulted in Burma
becoming one of the world's poorest countries. The present army is still
the same army of last the thirty four years. What Slorc must do now is to
agree to solve political problems through the genuine dialogues which Aunt
San Suu Kyi is demanding. Despite the fact that ASEAN nations insist upon
economic development prior to any political reforms, Burma must reform
politically before any economic reforms stand any chance of turning Burma
into a prosperous country. Burma's economy will heal only after political
My days in the student camp
Myo Naing Zaw
A cry of a child woke me up early in the morning. I tried to keep
sleeping but the sound is getting loud. The sound of other people added
into my hearing. It was impossible for me to continue my sleep. The two
and a half hour walk, climbing hills up and down, made me tired and my
whole body requested more rest in bed. Additionally, the cool weather of
the mountainous area forced me to stay huddled beneath the two blankets.
But I could not sleep anymore. Curiosity opened my eyes and kicked my
body out of the bed, 5 am in the morning which was early dawn and still
How come these babies and people woke up early and were busy? The
curiosity made me get out of the barrack where I slept. I was surprised to
see there were no people left in the barrack; I was the only one left. I
hastily brushed my teeth and washed my face. I gave up the idea to take a
bath in the stream. It was still very cool. I thanked my friends who gave
me extra blankets before I went to bed last night.
I zipped up my jacket and walked down along the main road of the
camp. Surprisingly again, there were no people in any house. The doors
were open. However, I heard the noise of the people from the head of the
camp. I kept walking towards the voice. I realized where the people were
when I saw the crowd near the volley ball playground. All were here -- the
leaders of the camp, boys, men, girls and women and even their little
children. I did not realize at once why all of them were here early in the
morning. However, I later understood they were preparing to do something.
They all brought their own instruments from their home such as shovels,
knives, baskets etc. They were also looking at me. I felt bad that I did
not know about this last night. I smiled at them and said "Hi".
One of the students said, "Hi, you are late."
"Sorry, I didn't know you had this. May I join you?" I asked.
"Why not, join and work with us for preparation of 4th January,
Independence Day. We are going to have some sports competition here and
the ground needs to be cleaned up.
"Are there any forced laborers?" I made a joke.
Everybody laughed. One student said, "We all are unpaid but not
forced laborers. Hey man, this is ABSDF camp you know. It's not Ye-Tavoy
railway projects or other forced labor camps run by Slorc."
We all laughed again.
The male students made the ground level, digging out the stone and
roots of the bushes. Girl students cut the grass and burnt the leaves.
Children curiously watched what the adults were doing. Some were playing
around. Everybody was working, joking with each other and smiling. I got
an idea to take a picture of them. I ran back up to my barrack and brought
my camera. When I was ready to shoot, one student shouted to the others:
"Hey the guy is taking a picture of us. Let's smile and say
cheese." They all smiled and laughed. It was totally different from the
photos from Slorc-run New Light of Myanmar. The people in the papers were
smiling too, but not as sweet or alive as these people here. They were
glad and happy to work towards such a noble contribution for their
celebration of 4th January (Independence Day of Burma). That made me
recall what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her year-long letter series to
Japanese newspapers. Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned in her letter from Burma
to the Mainichi Shimbun, Japan that, ".. no project could be successfully
implemented without the willing cooperation of those concerned. People
will contribute both hard work and money cheerfully if they are handled
with kindness and care and if they are convinced that their contributions
will truly benefit the public. Love and truth can move people more
strongly than any form of coercion." Nobody forced these people to work
like the way Slorc has been doing. These people, however, were willing to
contribute to their cause. The work was completed very fast and nobody
After the work, all were served sticky rice. I had my quota and
returned back to my barrack. I cleaned up my hands and lingered around the
camp. I had come here three months ago and had become familiar with all
the camp members, students and their families. The camp was moving ahead,
constructing more buildings and growing more vegetable small farms; it
seemed more organized. Even though they had just finished their work at
the volleyball playground, I saw some students were busy with their farms.
They were watering the plantation and others were weeding their nurseries.
The plantation was diverse, ranging from water green to egg plants and
cabbages. I also saw some students and families were busy cooking their
breakfast. When I passed by the small farms, my friend invited me to join
him for dinner tonight: "Hey, come and let's have dinner together. I'll
make a special dinner for you with my home-cultivated vegetables. What
would you like to have, green cabbage or eggplant?"
I replied without hesitance: "Anything, no problem for me." I
understood that it must be especially generous to invite other people when
the supplies were insufficient. However, this was quite common in Burmese
custom inviting guests to join them for lunch or dinner at their home.
They are very glad to treat the guests, even though they may have a very
small amount of food at home.
My friend continued to say, "We have to grow the vegetables for
our daily needs. It's our self-reliance program. We raise some chickens
and pigs, too. In this way, every household can match their daily needs ad
run their own programs."
I kept walking to the information department. There was a jungle
studio where many programs for DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma), a radio
station based in Oslo, Norway, were produced. The daily Burmese language
broadcasting program is aired inside Burma. Many students from the ABSDF
(All Burma Students Democratic Front) are working as DVB reporters and
programmers. This studio is one of the two DVB studios on the border. The
students document human rights abuses committed by the Slorc from inside
Burma and along the borders. They report to the Norway station. Some make
their regular programs for DVB. The studio is not very big nor does it
have many instruments. I recalled the amateur studio at my friend's home
in the USA. That studio was more equipped and sophisticated than this
jungle studio here. This is a basic studio, but amazingly it is producing
a lot of excellent programs for Burmese listeners inside Burma. During my
chat with the student from the ABSDF Information Department, he explained,
"We are producing various kinds of programs besides daily news to Norway.
As we are close to the Burmese border, we have a greater chance to meet
the refugees and victims who fled the human rights violations by the Slorc
to Thailand. Therefore, from their stories and personal testimonies, we
can make human rights programs. We also made a program called 'Letters
from inside Burma' and some short story programs with other members of the
ABSDF." He seemed proud of the studio's work. Incredibly, the ABSDF
students have made numerous excellent music tapes not only for the ABSDF,
but for the DVB. "We've just made 'Kayan' (an ethnic group in Karenni
state) music tape," he continued.
After spending some time in the studio, I walked to the camp's
learning center. It was a hall with a thatch roof and bamboo walls. There
were six different levels of English classes running during my time in the
camp. One of my Australian friends was teaching the students. The classes
were designated from the beginners to the advance levels depending on the
students. When I got there, students were role-playing in groups. It was
a different learning method from the teacher-to-student method used in
Burma when they were in their homeland. The method in Burma was just
leaning from the educators, without discussion or participation by the
students in the classroom. The method used in this center is learning by
participation. Students are urged to participate in the classroom
activities and learn a foreign languages by "doing." All students looked
like they were enjoying their studies and I reckoned that the relations
between the educators and students was good. I also learned that the
center is also used for other training and educational programs.
I returned back to my barrack and had my lunch with my friends.
The food was not so special -- a vegetable soup and fish paste. However,
it was fresh and delicious. As soon as I finished my lunch, I got an idea
to go around the library. I did not want to spend all my time reading in
the barrack. I wished to see friends in the camp and explore their
The library was not very big. It was near the stream and quiet.
Various books were kept on the book shelves systematically. I saw many
different books and subjects in this library, both in Burmese and English.
The collection included monthly magazines published in Burma, Times,
Newsweek and other educational materials. Some students were enjoying
reading books in the library. " Some students are book- worms. They want
to read as many books as they can. They spend the whole afternoon reading
until it's dark," the librarian explained. A former Rangoon Institute of
technology (RIT) student, he then went onto say he was fond of reading
books himself: "I enjoy being a librarian because I can read the books
and also recommend the ones worth reading to other fellow students," he
said with a smile.
The location was very pleasant for me -- nice, clean and quiet.
Many educational references and materials were available in the library,
so that students could spend time in the library for educational purposes
after the language classes. I also spent the rest of the afternoon in the
library until dinner time.
I got a chance to have a chat with the students after my dinner.
The night was terribly cool (it was mid-December). Students set a fire
near the barrack in order to fight the chilly weather. We talked about
various issues from their daily life to the future perspective of Burma;
it was a very frank and open discussion. I understood the morale of the
students was still high, even though they have been struggling for over
seven years. Their commitment for the democracy and human rights in their
homeland was admirable. " I believe that we have learnt a lot within the
past seven years in the jungle. I gained much practical knowledge and
ideas tha we cannot learn in the classroom. It's a real good knowledge for
the future of Burma," one student said emotionally.
They frankly told me that sometimes they felt frustrated
especially when they were forced to move to a new place due to the Slorc's
attack on the student camps. I sympathized with them. One student who
lost one of his legs during the fighting with Slorc commented, "We
understand it's a struggle. Struggle does not smooth all the time.
ometimes win and sometimes lose. We have decided to continue our struggle
against the military dictatorship until we win. I neither want my next
generation to live under the dictatorship in Burma nor still need to fight
against it. We want to overthrow the military dictatorship so that the
next generation will enjoy the fruit of our sacrifice." His voice was
strong and clearly expressed his determination and commitment. So
powerful were his words, that silence fell over the group. Everybody was
thinking deeply. His words reaffirmed the group's spirit for the
unfinished struggle for democracy in Burma.
We talked pretty late on that night. I had a very tight schedule
requiring me to leave the next day. I did not want to go back very soon.
I wanted to stay with the students in the camp more and share ideas and
listen to their views. However, I had to leave the next day so I said
"Good night" to everybody. Before I fell asleep, I wondered how to work
for these students and their cause of democracy in Burma. No matter where
we are in the world, we are on the same path striving for democracy in
Burma and must work together. As long as we ae unified by shared aims and
objectives, we can cooperate, walking hand in hand for the struggle. As
an Ethiopian proverb says, " WHEN SPIDERS UNITE THEY CAN TIE DOWN A LION."
We can overthrow the Slorc with our solidarity and unity.