Our Opinion: 2015

Burma’s time in the sun

Exploring Burma with my family is proving an exhilarating experience – although my sons’ weren’t impressed with my suggestion for Christmas Eve breakfast (see photograph). Burma, or Myanmar, has a profoundly dysfunctional economy, despite being rich in natural resources – particularly gas, oil, teak, gems and precious metals. Yet its people are the poorest in South East Asia, with most struggling to get by on an income of less than $2 a day.

Last month’s general election saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning an absolute majority of seats in the combined national parliament. Voting occurred in all constituencies, excluding seats appointed by the military.

The polls were the first openly contested election held in the country since the 1990 NLD victory that was annulled by the military government.

While the NLD only needed a simple majority to carry on the normal business of government, it needed at least 67 percent to outvote the combined bloc of the pro-military USDP and the appointed legislators representing the military.

The result is a remarkable victory for Miss Suu Kyi, a vindication of her policy of compromise with the generals and a repudiation of decades of military rule.

Amid the euphoria though, there is a fear that Myanmar’s generals will seek to frustrate the people’s will. The early signs are that they will not do so blatantly, as they did when they ignored Miss Suu Kyi’s last general-election success in 1990. But apart from their parliamentary block, the generals also retain control of the army, police and key ministries as well as much of the civil service. The army-inspired constitution ensures that Miss Suu Kyi cannot become president. While Aung San Suu Kyi  is constitutionally barred from the presidency (as both her husband and her children are foreign citizens), she declared that she would hold the real power in any NLD-led government.

The ruling party’s defeat is such that the army’s hope for a “disciplined” democracy is no longer tenable, if it ever was. The generals must now accept that their best hope of preserving their interests is to co-operate with the NLD in a process of thorough reform, including constitutional change. In Miss Suu Kyi they have a figure of authority willing to set aside bygones. Undermining her would strengthen those who think the generals should be pursued for human-rights abuses and ill-gotten gains.

For now, Miss Suu Kyi says she will call the shots from outside government. During the campaign she attracted many voters purely with her charisma, with very few credible policy announcements.

Myanmar believes its progress is best achieved by being an active member of ASEAN – the Asian group of countries aiming to accelerate economic growth – made up of  Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Myanmar felt it’s time had come with economic prominence certain when it was due to assume the ASEAN presidency for a year – the government called in ‘Myanmar’s time in the sun.’ That Presidency was cancelled over concerns about the brutal military regime.

It is perhaps surprising that one of Asia’s most isolated and brutal dictatorships may thus be setting a democratic example to some of its other members: in recent years Thailand has suffered a military coup (again), Vietnam has been locking up more dissenters and bloggers than ever and Malaysia’s government has clung to power only through rigged elections.

The World Bank has been projecting strong economic growth for the country, and the economy is also benefiting from the dropping of sanctions, the floating of its currency (the kyat) and he passing of new foreign investment laws. Sean Turnell an expert in Myanmar’s economy at the Sydney Macquarie University believes this “represents a seminal break from Burma’s past.” The Economist recently reported “the real challenge is to make this a genuine transformation of the capabilities and freedoms enjoyed by the Burmese people.”

As noted above, Myanmar is not short on economic assets. A report by the Harvard Ash Centre in 2013 notes that “if reasonable tax proceeds from all natural resources including jade, gas, copper and hydro-electricity were added to gold, gems, timber and other minerals, there could be billions of dollars a year more for investment than now.”

Miss Suu Kyi must speak up and try to govern, even with her hands tied. She must still tread carefully in her dealings with the generals, but she must also be firm in setting a timetable for them to surrender their dominance of the economy. Indeed, she must draw up policies to give investors the confidence needed to develop the country’s agricultural and mineral wealth. She will need to foster a spirit of inclusiveness, seeking to stop the ethnic disputes by creating a federal system that makes minorities feel safer.

The daughter of Aung San, who led Burma to independence from the British, Miss Suu Kyi has endured years of house arrest and much else. She might yet become the leader that most Burmese clearly want, with the potential to establish it as an economic force within ASEAN and an attractive emerging market for foreign investment.

Burma is an extraordinary land, scattered with gilded pagodas, where the traditional ways of Asia endure and previously off-limits areas are opening up. The greatest test for this incredible country – the potential to unlock its vast economic potential – lies ahead. The Burmese people are confident that Miss Suu Kui is up to the task. Investors will be closely watching in 2016 to see if that confidence is well founded.