Established in 2009, 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. The goal of this analysis is to provide a common framework in which the different interest groups can negotiate solutions to long-standing problems, particularly with regard to minority ethnic and religious groups.
Myanmar Faces a Critical Juncture in the Country’s History
Following the election of an National League for Democracy (NLD) majority, Myanmar seemed to be turning a page in it’s political history and would no longer be as politically isolated from other Asian countries. It appeared as though western interest and investment would increase. However, recent tragic events in Rakhine state have injected a sobering note of realism to this early optimism. In the analysis of current events it is crucial to understand where Myanmar started. It is not just poor and stifled by an economy that is backward and distorted; the country 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 it faces, let alone design and implement a sustainable and equitable growth strategy. Furthermore, the country has never been a peaceful, united nation. The government struggles to contain ethnic and religious tensions that threaten political and economic progress. The forced exodus of seven hundred thousand Muslims from Rakhine state and the lack of progress in ethnic peace making present severe challenges. Moving forward will require difficult steps and creative thinking.
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. The extent to which Myanmar avoids isolating itself from the west is also an issue. The Myanmar Program, working exclusively with Proximity Designs explores options to improve the chances of positive outcomes. Proximity Designs is a local social entrepreneurial company working in rural areas across Myanmar.
Natural Resources and Ethnic Groups
A third of Myanmar’s 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. Myanmar has a diverse composition but a majority of power has been assumed by one religion and ethnic group. If the groups cannot negotiate, they will continue fighting and Myanmar will lose its ability to control its future. The Myanmar Program works with government, ethnic and military leaders to explore mutually beneficial options.