Myanmar is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. Despite its lush natural resources, the country formerly known as Burma has remained among Asia’s struggling economies, notwithstanding the fact that its neighbor, Thailand, has periodically rebounded from the boom-bust cycle of the international economy, including 1990s Asian Financial Crisis. Even if there be economic pitfalls like these, Myanmar has always been known for its two social pillars – the Buddhist monks and the Burmese military.
For years, the these two socio-political institutions have always been embroiled in a love-hate relationship especially in amassing the support of the Burmese people, as evidenced in the current political crisis engulfing all of Myanmar today. On the other hand, it is important to note that Myanmar was a former direct British colony, from 1824-1886 and subsequently became a province of India until it gained full independence in 1948. Burmese history post-independence though may be best described as a waltz between the exercise of democracy and the iron grip of the Burmese military institution, as the Burmese military junta has always wielded political and economic power in Burma since the time of Gen.
Ne Win until today, under the leadership of Gen. Than Shwe. Presently, several indicators may serve to show the level of development Burma has reached – the Per Capita Gross Domestic Product (PCGDP), Literacy Rate, and the Life Expectancy. These three are very important indices in determining whether or not the Burmese government and its people are successful in substantially improving the lives of members of their society.
The Burmese PCGDP is pegged at $1,800 (2006 est.), a far cry from the $9,200 (2006 est.) PCGDP of its neighbor Thailand and even its similarly situated neighbor Laos whose PCGDP is at $ 2,200. (cia.gov) On the other hand, Burma has been successful in ensuring that majority of its population can read and write, as its 89.9% literacy rate is only a few percentages lower than Thailand’s 92.6%. Life expectancy in Burma is also very low at 62.52 years old, while Thailand’s life expectancy is at 72.55 years old. Actually, the life expectancy in more underdeveloped neighbor Bangladesh is slightly higher than the Burmese average, at 62.84 years old. (cia.gov)
Over and above the usual economic explanations as to the depressing levels of poverty in Burma, a major basis for the continuing economic underdevelopment in Burma shall always be the authoritarian rule of the Burmese government and the patent lack of democracy and freedom in the country.
A main factor for the stunting of the Burmese economy is the strict government controls on all sectors of the economy by the ruling junta. Even as the world has already started embracing the principle of eliminating barriers to international trade, the Burmese economy continues to institute questionable economic policies such as a distorted interest rate regime and multiple official exchange rates. (cia.gov)
Moreover, the discredited image of the Burmese military junta to the world has also resulted in a lukewarm investment climate, diminishing foreign assistance by developed countries, and economic sanctions, especially due to its protracted and continued crackdown on pro-democracy dissidents including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Such an unfortunate economic and political situation would definitely lead to dire results insofar as human development is concerned, the result of which would be the low life expectancy of the Burmese people.
To a certain extent, it is very safe to surmise that the low life expectancy can be logically attributed to the failures of years of military junta rule in delivering basic social services to the people. Had the Burmese government been very effective in delivering primary healthcare to its impoverished countryside notwithstanding ensuring sustained food security, the necessary consequence of such a situation would perhaps lead to a higher life expectancy rate than what Burma currently faces.
Apparently, if one looks at the CIA world ranking on life expectancy, Burma at 168th place would find itself in the company of countries and states which had histories of problematic governments and states which do not necessarily hold the interest of their peoples at heart due to pervasive corruption, civil strife, among others. (cia.gov) On the other hand, it would seem surprising that an impoverished country like Burma would have such a high literacy rate of 89.9%, especially as similarly situated underdeveloped countries such as Haiti and Cambodia have very low literacy rates, at 52.9% and 50.2%, respectively.
The explanation for this would perhaps lie on the fundamental interest of the Burmese junta to educate and consolidate the people towards assimilating themselves to the legitimacy of the authoritarian regime, as an uneducated people would definitely plant the seeds of civil unrest and challenge the regime. This conjecture is offered in the light of similarly high literacy rates in other authoritarian yet impoverished regimes the world over, such as Cuba and North Korea, both of which have literacy rate of 99%. (cia.gov)
The primordial prerequisite for the economic development of Burma today needs more than a simple implementation of liberalization measures in its economy, as the basic problem lies in the very structure of its institutions, particularly the manner by which the Burmese government wields power. If there is no room for discussion of different economic theories and policies which have worked for countless other impoverished nations, no shift towards economic liberalization and deregulation policies can ever be hoped in Burma as an authoritarian government shall always tend to believe only the policies and theories which it would want to pursue and implement.
While a vast majority of the Burmese people is literate enough, it cannot be said fully at this point whether their literacy actually amounts to the development of countless professionals, scientists, engineers and skilled workers, as their poorly planned economy remains in shambles. In the ultimate analysis, prior to any economic cure which may be instituted to jumpstart its economic for the development of its resources and its people, a political solution must decisively be done if Burma is to move progressively and proactively forwards as a nation.
Burma. CIA World Factbook. Retrieved from November 20, 2007. November 15, 2007.
Thailand. CIA World Factbook. Retrieved from http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/th.html, November 20, 2007. November 15, 2007.
Rank Order – GDP – per capita (PPP). CIA World Factbook. November 20, 2007. November 15, 2007.
Rank Order – Life expectancy at birth. CIA World Factbook. November 20, 2007. November 15, 2007.