Resisting a neoliberal sweep of Burma

This is the final article in a three-part series.
Part 1: Politics returns to Burma
Part 2: Animating Burma’s reform from within

Those who celebrate the return of politics in Burma’s formal channels risk, ironically, shutting down real political debate and dissensus before they have even begun. The same way many opponents view Law as an end, Development is here the sacred object, led by ‘experts’ from outside who could (perhaps unwittingly) usher in a quasi-authoritarian neoliberalism where key social and political decisions over the future of the economy and its development would be quarantined in the hands of a narrow elite. The ritual activities of free voting and assembly would be given as so many crumbs to the masses kept outside of real politics.

Without connecting with average Burmese, elites are ill-equipped to make optimal decisions. Combine this with the advice they may receive from the conventional wisdom of development theory, and these decisions may be disastrous. Indeed, the International Crisis Group writes, “the president made clear that his goal is to build a modern and developed democratic nation,” leaving unexamined three words (‘modern’, ‘developed’, ‘democratic’) capacious enough to mean almost nothing. Good outcomes do not inevitably flow from them. Burma’s political participants should observe our particular historical moment with appropriate sobriety: the exemplars of the high-modernist state-capitalist version of liberal-democratic development are in deep crisis. The welfarist Europe is collapsing under its own contradictions, while the US renders miserable increasing numbers of citizens as its elites strip the country of its assets in the face of its imminent wane. And these are the privileged countries in this system!

Marginalised Burma might do even more poorly if it runs the international financial institution (IFI) playbook. First, those institutions have been disconnected from Burma for too long to offer relevant context-specific suggestions. More importantly, the decisions – the politics – must be owned and driven by Burmese themselves; rule by external experts runs the risk of short-circuiting the necessary internal conversations Burmese need to have, abdicating the politics of ‘development’ to the technocrats.

Yet, the ‘experts’ will push this as the sole solution available to Burma. This line of argument will be enhanced by the many opportunities immediately emerging; David Dapice’s research on Burma’s declining rice sector is just one example of the evisceration of many formerly productive parts of the economy, and it is reasonable to assume that finance capital, speculators, and entrepreneurs will all flood into these depressed zones to create (and then possibly extract) wealth. Rebuilding these destroyed markets is not bad in itself, but blindly facilitating and following this natural inertia could lead to catastrophe.

Burma could experience the same kind of pathological political-economic transformations that other neoliberal reforms have brought to underdeveloped areas of the global economy: a fire-sale (which has already begun) would transfer collectively-held value into private hands; a rigid ideology of ‘free markets’ could transform collective or moral decision-making cultures, breaking or weakening social bonds, which – given the initial discrepancies in power and influence – would naturally serve only a narrow few; an increasing GDP may also degrade the physical and existential environment in which it is realised.

Indeed, an emerging procedural politics will not obliterate class interests. These interests can instead be served by a liberal “development” project. Maung Zarni argues that the regime is using political reforms to continue internal colonisation of ethnic areas for the purpose of economic extraction. It is worth noting that this nefarious strategy is hardly particular to Burma; states and their elites have literally always acted this way. But given the lack of vision articulated by opponents, it is difficult to see how the opponents’ hypothetical government would effect manifestly different policies. For instance, in 2010 a group of dissidents handed me a proposal for their nascent political party, explicitly endorsing the “Washington Consensus”, clearly not realising the social and economic disasters that evolved out of the policy prescriptions denoted by that term. Returning to the ethnic areas, resource extractive development projects led by corporations are hardly preferable to those led by states.

Instead, experimentation and politics must replace neoliberal or authoritarian development in Burma. Argentina’s social transfer policies, especially from 2003 to 2006, and Bhutan’s innovative Gross National Happiness are both models from which Burma might learn, given that they have a sound focus on pro-poor interventions; directing natural resource wealth to the rural sector with a focus on small-holder farming rather than large agri-businesses would be an important reform. The point is that over the coming decades, Burma will face both the opportunity and the burden of charting a new path.

What seems lacking in both the oppositional activists and the Development proponents alike is an articulation of what their vision for Burma would entail. But three strategies might aid this: first, Burmese return to the political process to contest the country’s future, all the while remaining continually militant for reform and progress; second, Burmese push for human development that eschews neoliberal reforms, putting the poor first by mining the politics of the daily; and lastly, Burmese use these two facets as a point of entry for addressing historical ethnic animosities.

The third point may be the most important, as the tragic ongoing fighting in Kachin state makes clear. Now that safe stagnation may be giving way to political speed, anxieties and animosities simmering beneath the surface may re-emerge. Indeed, even if the top-down model of “Development” is rejected, the politics of managing change is one fraught with peril. Even reforms that sound good may cause conflict: allowing the voiceless to take part in policies, promoting equality across ethnicities, pro-poor policies rather than aggressive industrialisation – all have the power to incite anger and retribution from threatened and undermined vested interests. In other words, the political task has just begun in Burma, wherein any ‘development’ project must be transformed into a way of debating a shared vision of social and economic justice that is lived by the average Burmese struggling in the village or slum.

My hope is that such a politics of the daily can address ethnic and sectarian factionalism, as a necessarily multi-ethnic coalition crafts a narrative that recognises the shared humanity of all Burmese, beginning to resolve the contentious issues of cultural difference, historical animosity, and differential resource allocation and distribution among the ethnic and religious groups. This will not be an easy process, and this is emphatically not to make equivalent all abuses suffered by the different peoples of Burma. The perennial humiliation of being poor in Burma, the abuses of war experienced by ethnic citizens, the political terror of opposing the regime all contain singular horror and pain, and are as such irreducible. However, the discourse of shared challenge and daily struggle can provide a forum for recognising and learning about the different challenges that different groups have faced, while also allowing these peoples of diverse backgrounds to converse on a common civic identity.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman is Founding Research Associate Fellow, HR+SM Program, and Advisory Board Member, Sexuality, Gender, and HR Program at Harvard Kennedy School. He spent five years working in international development for various agencies—from the UN to international NGOs—where he directed projects in Burma, India, Thailand, and other countries in Southeast Asia.

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