The Myanmar Program seeks to deepen the understanding of the development and democratic governance challenges facing Myanmar. Moving beyond technical economics, the Program examines the broader political economy of reform and explores the connections between politics and institutional development to better address the country’s social and economic problems.
Myanmar Faces a Critical Juncture in the Country’s History
There has been much upbeat commentary about Myanmar, seeking to beat the drum for a new emerging market. Now that the page has been turned on long years of political isolation from all but some Asian countries, there is no doubt that western aid and investment levels will rise. But it is crucial to understand where Myanmar is starting from. It is not just poor and stifled by an economy that is backward and distorted; it is still partly dominated by the military. There has been no normal system of public finance. Years of poor management and lack of investment in education have deprived the state of local capacity to assess and understand the challenges, let alone design a sustainable and equitable growth strategy. Furthermore, the country has never been a peaceful, united nation. The government struggles to contain religious tensions that threaten political and economic progress.
Successful development in Myanmar will need political as well as economic development innovation. Growth will not be sustainable without increased national cohesion built upon peace and widely shared progress. The decisions taken by public leaders in the near term may well determine whether the country moves from stagnation and authoritarianism toward a more inclusive economic and political system.
Natural Resources and Ethnic Groups
Myanmar has additional complications: a third of its population is composed of various ethnic groups that have often been in conflict with the military and live on the resource-rich borders of the country. While managing an economic and political transition, these groups have to be included and their militias have to secure jobs which are more attractive than continued armed extraction. The country’s natural resources also attract interest from neighboring countries, local business people, and the military. Satisfying these interests and resolving conflicts in a way which leads to broadly based growth are an integral part of nation building. This will sometimes require incumbent groups to compromise with others who have not been well represented in the past. This is a difficult process and is one reason why some resource-rich nations have difficulty converting their natural wealth into growing well-being.