Thursday, October 13, 2011

Understanding the Changes in Burma

By DR ZARNI Wednesday, October 12, 2011

All the “dramatic” developments in Burma, including the release of 6,000-plus prisoners, are, as US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell put it, certainly welcome.  Likewise, the man from the International Crisis Group was singing the praise of Naypyidaw on the BBC World Service News hour with Robin Lustig on 11 Oct .

And yet despite these loud applauses of “changes” in Burma, the Burmese public is finding it very, very difficult to feel hopeful.

Not even Burma’s highly regarded political comedian Zaganar could say he was happy in spite of his new found freedom today when he was released from Myitkyina jail where he was serving 34 years behind bars.   He told the Burmese local Eleven Media Group before boarding the Rangoon-bound plane, "Based on my current experiences I dare not think changes are real and big this time either."

Time magazine quoted his remark to the Associate Press:  "I am not happy at all, as none of my 14 so-called political prisoner friends from Myitkyina prison are among those freed today". 

So, how are we really to understand these much-trumpeted “changes” in Burma?

These changes do not include the change of heart among Burma’s rulers.  They are in fact principally related to only two things.

First, the regime's felt need to realign its geopolitical interests.

The military’s uneasiness about its need to rely on China for international protection runs deep.  Today China is also Burma’s number one foreign investor, all of it in mega-development, infrastructural and resource extractive projects.

And for Naypyidaw dealing with an increasingly aggressive, powerful and rich Beijing, without the backing of the West and the mainstream Burman public, is like fighting with one hand tied behind the back.

Tangible improvements on the human rights, political and development fronts are part of the price the generals have to pay to balance Beijing's growing influence.

Second, the generals and ex-generals have an acute desire to prove that they are not failures at nation-building, as the bulk of the Burmese public thinks. That’s understandable. The military has had nearly half a century to govern, develop and bring about peace and prosperity for all—not just themselves and their families. But they have turned the world’s rice basket into a basket case.

Hard facts on the ground speak louder than the military’s institutionalized fiction that the senior and junior generals vis-à-vis civilians are brilliant nation-builders. The generals’ Burma is ranked second to last, just ahead of Somalia, on Transparency International's Corruption Index. Public provision of health services exists only in name. There are no social safety nets. Period.

Public education, the largest provider of schooling, at all levels lies in ruin. Ninety-nine percent of university graduates don’t know what BA or BSc stands for, let alone how to spell Bachelor of Arts or Science correctly. And forget the home-grown PhDs.

This extremely low quality of human resources is not the exclusive problem of civilian educational and bureaucratic institutions. The bulk of the 4,000-plus graduates from the Defense Services Academy, the Defense Services Technological Academy and the Defense Services Medical Academy failed entrance examinations at Russian educational institutes where they were sent as “state scholars” under civilian disguise.
There are pockets of communities whose socioeconomic and humanitarian conditions are closer to those of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa than to those of an Asian country about to “take off” developmentally. Many spend more than 70 percent of their meager household income on food alone, while wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Chinese and a handful of cronies, who in part play the role of portfolio managers for the generals and ex-generals.

The country’s ecology and communities face serious threats to their survival from some mega-development projects such as dam construction—seven on the Irrawaddy, Burma’s Nile, alone—and the two major Chinese gas and oil pipelines and Thailand’s $13 billion Special Economic Zone construction in the country's far south.

Nearly one-million Muslims—Arakanese Muslims and Rohingya—are forced to live in semi-concentration camps in Arakan State. In the midst of economically rising Asia, the country produces the fifth largest refugee population in the world. The Burma Army is still waging military operations against armed ethnic groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Union.

Source: The Irrawaddy

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