Sat, Mar 10, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Myanmar’s transformation deserves support from the West

By Joseph Stiglitz

Here in Myanmar, where political change has been numbingly slow for a half-century, a new leadership is trying to embrace rapid transition from within. The government has freed political prisoners, held elections (with more on the way), begun economic reform and is intensively courting foreign investment.

Understandably, the international community, which has long punished Myanmar’s authoritarian regime with sanctions, remains cautious. Reforms are being introduced so fast that even renowned experts on the country are uncertain about what to make of them.

However, it is clear to me that this moment in Myanmar’s history represents a real opportunity for permanent change — an opportunity that the international community must not miss. It is time for the world to move the agenda for Myanmar forward, not just by offering assistance, but by removing the sanctions that have now become an impediment to the country’s transformation.

So far, that transformation, initiated following legislative elections in November 2010, has been breathtaking. With the military, which had held exclusive power from 1962, retaining about 25 percent of the seats, there were fears that the election would be a facade. However, the government that emerged has turned out to reflect fundamental concerns of Myanmar’s citizens far better than was anticipated.

Under the leadership of Burmese President Thein Sein, the authorities have responded to calls for a political and economic opening. Progress has been made on peace agreements with ethnic-minority insurgents — conflicts rooted in the divide-and-rule strategy of colonialism, which the country’s post-independence rulers maintained for more than six decades. The Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not only released from house arrest, but is now campaigning hard for a parliamentary seat in next month’s by-elections.

On the economic front, unprecedented transparency has been introduced into the budgetary process. Expenditures on healthcare and education have been doubled, albeit from a low base. Licensing restrictions in a number of key areas have been loosened. The government has even committed itself to moving toward unifying its complicated exchange-rate system.

The spirit of hope in the country is palpable, though some older people, who saw earlier moments of apparent relaxation of authoritarian rule come and go, remain cautious. Perhaps that is why some in the international community are similarly hesitant about easing Myanmar’s isolation. However, most Burmese sense that if changes are managed well, the country will have embarked on an irreversible course.

Last month, I participated in seminars in Yangon and the recently constructed capital, Naypyidaw, organized by one of the country’s leading economists, U Myint. The events were momentous, owing both to large and actively engaged audiences (more than a thousand in Yangon), and to the thoughtful and moving presentations by two world-famous Burmese economists who had left the country in the 1960s and were back for their first visit in more than four decades.

My Columbia University colleague Ronald Findlay said that one of them, 91-year-old Hla Myint, who had held a professorship at the London School of Economics, was the father of the most successful development strategy ever devised, that of an open economy and export-led growth. That blueprint has been used throughout Asia in recent decades, most notably in China. Now, perhaps, it has finally come home.

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