This weekend I came across a headline familiar from last year’s reporting about the Arab Spring – only that the country discussed in the news article was Myanmar. The article was entitled “Myanmar poverty risks stoking unrest”. In the past months mainstream media and blog entries in unison praised developments in the conflict-ridden country, in particular steps taken towards further democratisation and the opening up to foreign investments. Business delegations from China, Japan and increasingly also Western countries have visited the country eager to scope out the enormous economic opportunities in a country that desperately needs better infrastructure and technology.
Most articles focus on Myanmar’s economic potential:
- Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi makes parliamentary debut (BBC July 9, 2012)
- Myanmar: Open for business (Aljazeera.Com June 9, 2012)
- New foreign investment hits $133 million: MIC (The Myanmar Times, July 15, 2012)
Although others caution the international community not to disregard the enormous challenges with regard to simmering ethnic conflict, social and economic inequality and the country’s rampant unemployment. In her first foreign visits after over 20 years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged investors to keep a “healthy scepticism” with regard to her country’s reform agenda and its deficient judicial system. She called her country’s level of youth unemployment a “time bomb” that has to be defused urgently. Two articles that illustrate how human rights and extreme poverty remain a threat for Myanmar’s future development can be found here:
- Suu Kyi urges ‘scepticism’ on Myanmar reforms (Aljazeera.com, June 1, 2012)
- Myanmar: A long, long walk to national reconciliation (Asia Times Online, July 10, 2012)
Last year’s “Arab spring” has shown how leaders can easily underestimate the explosive potential of mass poverty, sustained periods of high unemployment and well organised civic protest movements. While the latter might not be the case yet in Myanmar, its economic opening and widening access to communication technologies could change that rapidly. Representatives from the Asian Development Bank have already raised concerns that extreme poverty among Myanmar’s ethnic minorities could trigger social unrest. Pro-poor investments would have to address regional differences in povery and economic developments. Farmers need assistance to boost their agricultural productivity, but also require the infrastructure to access new markets inside the country as well as overseas. The development bank forecasts that even if GDP grows at 5-6 % a year it will take 30 years to reach Thailand’s current level of development.
While the government seems determined to seal as many lucrative deals with foreign investors as possible, it remains to be seen whether they are willing to take the necessary steps bring about national reconciliation. Along that path the country faces serious risks of social unrest and backsliding into violent conflict in particular in its economically least developed states. The year ahead will be crucial to push reform efforts further and to stay on the fragile path of national reconciliation in this conflict-ridden country.