Friday, August 7, 2009

Is the Lady Wrong?

The Irrawaddy News

In a fresh attack on Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, The Economist proclaimed that she was an obstacle to the country’s development. “Will the courageous Lady admit as much?” the international political journal challenged.

As a student of international development, I was keen to look into the argument through a comparative review of Suu Kyi’s own concept of development.

Before reading my analysis, readers should not lose sight of two fundamental factors: The system and the power.

Politically and economically, Burma has been in a transitional state to democracy, practicing a military authoritarianism and a market economy since 1988 with the military junta exercising legislative, executive and judiciary powers.

Meanwhile, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections. She, however, has been a prisoner of the junta for nearly 14 of the past 20 years.

The notion that democracy can be achieved through development, as Thant Myint-U said in the article, is in fact not new. It was a popular idea in the 1980s when the world witnessed the “economic miracle” in East Asia when countries such as South Korea and Taiwan took off, accompanied close behind by Southeast Asian neighbors Singapore and Malaysia.

Economists viewed these countries’ spectacular development as a consequence of rapid economic growth. They usually reached the conclusion that East Asia had succeeded on a policy of “development first, democracy second,” on the basis that democracy is fragile without a strong middle class.

Thant Myint-U seems to be a member of this camp. Some development theorists advocated that as the East Asian countries in question—the “Asian Tigers” as they became known—were ruled by one-party-dominated governments, the task of development in an authoritarian state was easier to implement than in a democratic one. They pointed to the failure of several Latin American countries’ economies as an example.

But later, a new finding proved that the growth of an economy that over-emphasized GDP (Gross Domestic Product) didn’t reflect that country’s development.

The late former president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, invited Suu Kyi to a meeting of the World Commission on Culture and Development in Manila in 1994. Under house arrest, Suu Kyi was only able to send to the meeting a letter which stated her concept on development.

Referring to Francois Perroux’s “A New Concept of Development,” issued by UNESCO (United Nations Education Science and Culture Organization) in 1983, Suu Kyi was aware of the need to redefine the meanings of “development” and “growth.”

“The unsatisfactory record of development in many parts of the world and the ensuing need for a definition of development which means more than mere economic growth became a matter of vital concern to economists and international agencies more than a decade ago,” she said.

Another finding on the recent economic miracles of East and Southeast Asia is that the success of those economies is due to the efficiency of strong government institutions. Ironically, these authoritarian states embraced the core principles of accountability, transparency, a minimum level of corruption, an independent banking system, an effective check and balance system through decentralization to the private sector, and the state’s social investment in education and health.

So, is it logical that the absence of good governance in Burma is due to the economic sanctions of the American-led Western countries? Does it make sense that the junta’s failed economic policies of the past 20 years were caused by the NLD leader’s advocacy of economic sanctions?

No country wants to invest in a country without a rule-based economic environment; and the necessary rules are drawn and adopted by policymakers from the political arena.

The development of China and Vietnam today could not have been achieved without the ability to conduct a series of reforms.

Therefore, it is impossible and even wrong to consider the “development first, democracy second” principle.

The people of Burma have been living without a constitution for 20 years and badly need a functioning political system. They have showed the desire for this many times, most memorably the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the 1990 elections.

Suu Kyi wrote a special report in the Human Development Report titled “Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World,” [published by the UNDP in 2002]. In it she wrote:

“Human development encompasses all aspects of human existence. It is generally accepted that its scope includes political and social rights as well as economic ones, but the different rights are not always given the same weight.

“For example, some people still claim that humanitarian aid and economic assistance cannot wait for political and social progress. This insidious idea creates dissonance between complementary requirements.”

After her release from a second period of house arrest in 2003, The Irrawaddy interviewed Suu Kyi, a month before she was attacked in Depayin. She answered questions covering a range of the issues, including humanitarian aid.

“We have never said ‘no’ to humanitarian aid as such,” she said. “We have always said humanitarian aid must be given to the right people in the right way, which of course calls for accountability and transparency.

“And of course we always say that the minimum necessary requirement is independent monitoring.”

In another interview, this time for an Altsean-Burma report—“A Peace of Pie? Burma’s Humanitarian Aid Debate”—Suu Kyi said: What I would like to say is the most important aspect of humanitarian assistance or any kind of assistance is good governance. Unless there is good governance, you cannot ensure that the assistance will really benefit the country.”

The past two decades are adequate testimony to the efficiency of a government with a total lack of “good governance,” which has caused what can only be called a “gross domestic failure.”

If the readers didn’t lose sight of the two fundamental factors, as I mentioned above, they can conclude the correct answer to the question of this article’s title.

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