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.
I delivered a lecture in Myanmar in December 2009. At that time, one had to be careful, given the government’s sensitivities, even about how one framed the country’s problems — its poverty, lack of rural productivity and unskilled workforce. Now caution has been replaced by a sense of urgency in dealing with these and other challenges, and by awareness of the need for technical and other forms of assistance. (Relative to its population and income, Myanmar is one of the world’s smallest recipients of international assistance.)
There is much debate about what explains the rapidity of Myanmar’s current pace of change. Perhaps its leaders recognized that the country, once the world’s largest rice exporter, was falling far behind its neighbors. Perhaps they heard the message of the Arab Spring or simply understood that, with more than 3 million Burmese living abroad, it was impossible to isolate the country from the rest of the world or prevent ideas from seeping in from its neighbors. Whatever the reason, change is occurring and the opportunity that it represents is undeniable.
However, many of the international sanctions, whatever their role in the past, now seem counterproductive. Financial sanctions, for instance, discourage the development of a modern and transparent financial system, integrated with the rest of the world. The resulting cash-based economy is an invitation to corruption.
Likewise, restrictions that prevent socially responsible companies based in advanced industrial countries from doing business in Myanmar have left the field open to less scrupulous firms. We should welcome Myanmar’s desire for guidance and advice from multilateral institutions and the UN Development Program; instead, we continue to limit the role that these institutions can play in the country’s transition.
Whenever we withhold assistance or impose sanctions, we need to think carefully about who bears the burden in bringing about the changes that we seek. Opening up trade in agriculture and textiles — and even providing preferences of the kind that are offered to other poor countries — would likely benefit directly the poor farmers who make up 70 percent of the population, as well as create new jobs. The wealthy and powerful can circumvent financial sanctions, though at a cost; ordinary citizens cannot so easily escape the impact of international-pariah status.
We have seen the Arab Spring blossom haltingly in a few countries; in others, it is still uncertain whether it will bear fruit. Myanmar’s transition is in some ways quieter, without the fanfare of Twitter and Facebook, but it is no less real — and no less deserving of support.
Joseph Stiglitz is University Professor at Columbia University and a Nobel laureate in economics.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
Burger King Taiwan on Wednesday last week posted an update on Facebook advertising a new “Wuhan pneumonia” (武漢肺炎) home delivery meal, catering to customers hankering for a Whopper, but who wished to avoid visiting one of its outlets. “Wuhan pneumonia” is the term commonly used in Taiwan to describe COVID-19. Beijing has been waging an extensive propaganda campaign against the use of the words “Wuhan” or “China” in reference to the novel coronavirus, calling it racist and discriminatory. Meanwhile, Chinese officials have claimed that the coronavirus might have originated in the US. The intention is obvious: to distract attention from the Chinese Communist
Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early-warning aircraft and Shenyang J-11 fighters on March 16 conducted a nighttime exercise in the waters southwest of Taiwan and, in doing so, came close to the nation’s air defense identification zone. Three days later, the PLA Navy’s fleet for Gulf of Aden escort mission sailed north in the Pacific off Taiwan’s east coast via the Miyako Strait on its way home. Meanwhile, the US carried out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and assembled the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group with the Expeditionary Strike Group to conduct
Italy, Spain, France, the UK and the US are all depending on social distancing to fight COVID-19 and have fallen into terrible situations, with mounting positive cases and many deaths. Social distancing might flatten the curve, so that the peak is not so high that hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, the problem is that the pandemic could extend further into the future, hurt the economy more and become unbearable for society. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore have controlled the spread of COVID-19, and the main reason is that most Asians wear masks. It can be illustrated as follows: If someone contracts the
Having returned to the UK late last year and with a Taiwanese spouse remaining in Taiwan, I have been afforded the chance to compare and contrast the UK and Taiwanese governments’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis. My early conclusions are that Taiwan benefits from a rational, competent government, which quickly recognizes, adapts to and confronts large-scale disasters. It is led by a government that does more than just talk of respecting democracy and human rights, one that is scrutinized and responds to criticism, one that is concerned about public opinion, and one that is used to dealing with emergencies on