from Asia Unbound

Disillusionment in Myanmar?

October 22, 2013

Myanmar's Police Chief Zaw Win speaks at a news conference about the recent bomb blasts around the country, at the Yangon Division government office in Yangon on October 18, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)
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Last week, a string of bombings rocked Myanmar, killing at least one person and hitting targets ranging from the northeast to downtown Yangon. So far, the government has arrested eight men in conjunction with the bombings and alleged that the perpetrators are ethnic Karen who want to deter foreign investment and are unhappy that the main Karen organizations are negotiating for peace.

But as political scientist Yola Verbruggen notes on New Mandala, the specifics of who planted the bombs obscures a broader point: the bombings only add to an overall feeling of insecurity among the public in Myanmar that has been building for more than a year. This feeling of insecurity among the public stems from several factors. In part, it is the result of rising inter-religious violence across the country, but it is also the result of disappointment that the transition to democracy, launched in 2010, has not thus far led to significant, broad-based development.  She writes:

Many people, from taxi drivers to shop attendants, voice disappointment over the current democratization process. Nothing has changed, they say, they still struggle to provide for their families and opportunities are limited. Everybody who has taken a taxi in Yangon has probably had a graduate engineer, former school teacher or certified lawyer as their driver; they cannot get a job in their own field or get paid too badly to stick with it. Attention is focused on creating a ‘peace dividend’ in the ethnic areas, but because there is no fighting in the cities, similar policies do not seem to be implemented in central Myanmar. People do not understand why their livelihoods have not yet improved. They thought the magic of the word “democracy” would change their country,  but now they are becoming impatient.

Like Verbruggen, I also have found many people expressing the sentiment (at least in Yangon) that the reform process that has been in place since 2010 should already have brought wider development. As I write in my book Democracy in Retreat, this expectation that democratization will quickly bring rapid growth, growth that lifts all boats, has been common in developing nations going back at least to the early 1990s. Throughout the massive wave of post-Cold War democratization, across Eastern Europe and parts of Africa and Latin America and Asia, both leaders of developing nations and many leaders of Western democracies aggressively touted the idea that political change would foster rapid and equitable growth. (Only a rare leader like Nelson Mandela had the courage to tell his people that democracy, while a good in itself, would not miraculously produce economic change.) Yet while democracy tends to produce a better quality of life over the long-term—one prominent study linked democracy with lower child mortality—in the immediate post-authoritarian period, democracy does not necessarily lead to higher growth. The chaos of a transition period actually can depress growth.

It seems the lessons of the 1990s and early 2000s have not been learned in Myanmar, as local leaders, from the president’s office to the NLD, and foreign consultants and donors have been overselling Myanmar’s reforms. Myanmar’s political reforms have, since 2010, been extremely impressive. But constantly suggesting that the political reform process is going to produce a massive economic dividend, in a country that is still very challenging for investors, is only fostering this uneasy, angry mood.