Communiqué: Strengthening Prospects for Democracy in Myanmar

January 29, 2014
Communiqué: Strengthening Prospects for Democracy in Myanmar
A farmer stands on his oxcart in the Shan State, Myanmar

Director Saich and Dean Ellwood Visit An Emerging Nation

By Jessica Engelman – Communiqué: Winter 2013, Volume 13

In early October, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Ellwood joined a team from the Ash Center led by Director Saich on a trip to Myanmar to seek the views of policymakers and other stakeholders on how the School can continue to support Myanmar’s development and transition through research, training, and dialogue. The Dean, Saich, and the Center’s team – comprised of Senior Advisor Thomas Vallely, Vietnam Program Director Ben Wilkinson, and Executive Director Julian Chang – met with a number of prominent political figures including the speaker of the house, the minister in charge of peace negotiations with ethnic factions in the country, and the former minister of industry who is now a close advisor to the president of Myanmar. In addition, the group met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who was recognized in 1991 with the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent work to promote democracy and human rights in the country.

Since her visit to Harvard in September 2012, during which she spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Aung San Suu Kyi has continued her effort to work through the parliament to advance the NLD’s policy priorities. She is deeply concerned with strengthening the rule of law in Myanmar, believes that Myanmar must transition to a form of federal government, and views the development of more robust legal institutions, including an independent judiciary, as critical to improving public governance. When asked how the Ash Center could be most valuable to the country, Aung San Suu Kyi discussed the need for agricultural modernization and mechanization (as discussed in the Center’s reports) and weaknesses in the area of human capital development, especially in education. Indeed, in the early 1950s, Rangoon University was considered the best in Southeast Asia. More generally, Burma was seen as the bright hope for development in the region due to its human capital infrastructure as well as its rich natural resources. As Saich regretfully observes, it is an “extraordinary achievement by the military junta that they were able to hold back development for 60 years.”

In addition to meeting with the political elite, the Ash Center team felt it was imperative to also embark on field visits where they could meet with rural villagers and representatives from Myanmar’s ethnic groups. Indeed, the Center’s involvement in Myanmar began with a focus on the rural agricultural economy. In 2008, the Center was approached by Proximity Designs – a social enterprise organization based in Myanmar and founded by two HKS midcareer graduates – to undertake a series of policy studies. Proximity’s extensive network – they have a presence in 10,000 villages around the country – has enabled the Center’s research team to infuse its work with sensitivity to local conditions and needs. Since 2009, the team has produced over a dozen reports analyzing the political and economic conditions in Myanmar, and proposing specific reforms. These reports, primarily funded by the Royal Norwegian Government, may be accessed in their entirety here.

The “Dry Zone” in central Myanmar covers large parts of the Magway and Mandalay divisions as well as the southern portion of Sagaing division. The zone covers an eighth of total area in Myanmar and a quarter of its population. It has long been well known for low rainfall, but recent droughts and irregular rainfall have made farming even more difficult. In addition, many traditional water storage practices have proven to be inadequate and there are seasonal shortages of drinking water for people and livestock. After traveling by oxcart, the Ash Center team met with villagers in a small town in the Dry Zone where there is no electricity and no clean water source. Proximity is currently working to dig a communal well to sustain the villagers through each year’s dry period. In another village, Proximity has introduced low-cost foot pumps for irrigation as well as solar lights. For those farmers that cannot afford to pay for a pump, Proximity is now developing a microloan program. The villagers commented to the Dean and Saich that their income had risen significantly after the introduction of these technologies.

In contrast, the Shan State in the north is an area is one of rolling hills and generally ample rainfall. The state covers a quarter of the area of Myanmar and has a population estimated at nearly a tenth of the national total. Its main ethnic group is the Shan, but there are 10 other major ethnic groups in the state, some with semi-independent areas under their ethnic control. Rice, tea, fruits, and vegetables are grown. In addition, there are rich deposits of rubies, precious metals, lead, and zinc. In talks with the team from the Ash Center, ethnic leaders emphasized their desire for a revenue sharing plan with the central government to allow them to invest in roads, electricity, and better education. Currently, the government extracts much of the area’s wealth with little direct benefit to the Shan State. There have been clashes over this and other issues for decades, although some ceasefire agreements are under varying stages of development.

To promote mutual understanding, the Dean and the Center have been asked to develop trainings that bring together Myanmar’s various factions. While discussions are still nascent, it is hoped that by training both leaders from the central government and the ethnic states in the concept of federalism and its demands, peace and democracy can be advanced in the country.