A leading figure in the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF) has said that the elections must usher in a new dawn for Burma’s economy and an end to its reliance on traditional commodity exports.
The NDF is set to contest the 7 November polls, but with only 163 candidates, stands little chance against the might of its junta-backed opponents, such as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and National Unity Party (NUP).
Tin Aung Aung, vice-chairman of the party’s Upper Burma Central Executive Committee, says however that Burma’s economic landscape needs to change after decades of military rule.
“We sell raw materials [but] we have to make finished goods, so women can make jewellery; we export logs – teak,” said Tin Aung Aung. “After parliament [is convened] we have to change this, we have to sell finished goods.”
His economic vision for the NDF is shared by senior Burmese economists such as U Myint, who said in a recent report that “exploiting natural resources and building physical infrastructure is not enough” for the country.
Tin Aung Aung is based in Mandalay, which has become a centre for many of Burma’s commodity exports. He also point to the jade industry as symptomatic of economic malpractice – Burma is blessed with some of the finest and largest deposits of jade in the world, but the prized stone is often exported in its raw form to more affluent neighbours such as China and Thailand, where it is carved into the finished product.
“Our people are feeling that because China is getting more of our natural resources,” he says. It is an industry that could not only add significant value, but, vitally for the Burmese economy and workforce, it is labour intensive.
“Women can’t occupy business so they run karaoke and prostitution – we have to give them proper business opportunities and some loans so they can run their businesses,” he adds.
The economic policies of campaigning parties have to date been conspicuously lacking in media coverage of the elections, which has focused largely on the controversies surrounding the polls.
Tin Aung Aung told DVB that his party would seek to emulate the strategies of Nobel prize-winner, Professor Muhammed Yunnus. His Grameen Bank in Bangladesh famously pioneered a micro-loan initiative that equipped poor rural women with the means to start small businesses.
The manufacturing endeavours proposed by the NDF require power, and Tin Aung Aung is scathing about the dire shortage of electricity in Burma. Despite having the capacity to produce power from natural gas and hydro-electric dams, much of the produce is sold to neighbouring countries.
“We have to change this policy; we have to use the gas for ourselves” he says. Natural gas exports were worth some US$2.5 million in 2007/08, and this figure will only increase when the Shwe gas pipeline to China comes online in 2013. But there is no end in sight for the regular power shortages that plague much of Burma.
Whether the country will be able to gradually wean itself off commodity exports remains to be seen: many of the deals for commodities like gas have already been signed and will be difficult to renege on, given the income they provide to the ruling junta and its cronies. But while this income is needed for Burma’s future development, problems with corruption in the country will no doubt remain.
But Tin Aung Aung and his colleagues are realistic. “We have to learn all the mismanagement points,” he admits, adding that the NDF is hopeful of cross-party consensus on economic issues such as these. “In parliament we must organise our parties – the democratic parties, but also the USDP and NUP; we must organise them”.