Economic Advice Unlikely to Create Real Improvements for Burma’s Poor

Joseph Stiglitz, advisor to President Obama and a professor at Columbia University, is scheduled to speak to representatives of the Burmese military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), about poverty alleviation strategies during a visit later this month. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist famous for his research on economic development, undoubtedly has valuable tips for Burmese leaders. As a supporter of government assistance in the management of local economies, Stiglitz will likely offer members of the SPDC advice on how best to design policies that will encourage rural development. While Stiglitz surely has helpful information for SPDC leaders, any economic reforms that are not accompanied by genuine democratization will not generate lasting improvements for the people of Burma.

A visit from a world-renowned economist is a great opportunity for the leaders of Burma to take concrete steps to end poverty in the country. Advice is sorely needed to correct the failed policies of Burma, a nation that is ranked 138th on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index and was recently ranked third from the bottom, above only Afghanistan and Somalia, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

But Burma is not a poor country. When the military junta took power in 1962, Burma was one of the wealthiest nations in the region with ample natural resources.  Increased militarization and political oppression led to the squandering of Burma’s wealth and deepening poverty across the country. As the regime increased the size of its military, it diverted funds from essential social sectors. Burma now spends about forty percent of its budget on its military, less than three percent on health care, and even less on education. Today, Burma’s military runs the nation’s economy, controlling major production sectors such as mining and logging. Economic improvements in such industries would only fuel the military and contribute to the regime’s neglect of social services. Increased wealth under a system that prioritizes militarization would generate few benefits for Burma’s rural poor.

Policy advice could be useful if the Burmese junta genuinely wanted to improve living conditions in the country. Observers remain skeptical that Stiglitz’s advice would lead to any sort of positive reforms given the indifference of the regime to the suffering of its people. Human rights organizations have been documenting the regime’s human rights abuses for decades. Groups on the Thai-Burma border have amassed information on the regime’s widespread commission of sexual violence, use of child soldiers, forced labor, forced relocation, unlawful killings, and disappearances, among other crimes. The regime seems bent on continuing its brutal attacks as next year’s elections approach. The SPDC’s continued criminality will surely hamper any intent the regime has to improve living conditions its citizens. Leaders who consistently violate international norms may not heed the advice of an economist who wants to elevate living conditions for the poorest in the country.

The regime’s human rights abuses, many of which constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, are perhaps the most serious symptom of the SPDC’s systematic mismanagement of the nation’s economy. They demonstrate that Burma’s economic woes are not accidental, but rather reflect the SPDC’s inability to soundly govern. The SPDC’s policies are rarely logical and do not demonstrate a modicum of concern for the people of Burma. The SPDC made headlines, for example, when it made a bizarre shift in capital cities in 2005 from urban Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a desolate place about two-hundred miles north of Rangoon.

Burma does not need a Nobel prize-winning economist to help them out of poverty – it needs a fundamental shift in governance. Genuine democratic change and greater political freedoms will do much more than a reinforcement of the status quo to generate economic growth in Burma.

* Andrea Gittleman is an Arthur Helton Global Human Rights Fellow at the Burma Lawyers’ Council in Mae Sot, Thailand, where she is advocating for criminal accountability in Burma and researching gender-based violence in the region.

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