[Outlook]An idea called BurmaAs I travel the world, I feel sorry when a country is poor and I wonder why that nation is not more prosperous.
I feel especially sad when a country is impoverished, even when it has the resources, such as an environment rich in minerals, to be better off.
What is the reason? The reason can be the country’s history, culture or other factors. But the conclusion is usually the same. The most important element is the people and, especially, the leaders of the country.
Myanmar is one such country. Looking at its resources, the country seems to lack for nothing.
Myanmar is 3.5 times larger than the Korean Peninsula. Its population is 54 million. That is not small. The country has a rain forest, an ecosystem that is a treasure house. And the country has abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas, rare minerals and teak.
There are a variety of opportunities for tourism, from the snow-capped Himalayas to tropical beaches and a rich Buddhist heritage.
The country was once the largest rice exporter in the world and was once believed to have the biggest potential for growth.
But the country is now having an unbelievably hard time. In 2005, the gross domestic product per capita was $180, making it the poorest country in the world, according to the United Nations. The country’s GDP based on purchasing power parity per capita was ranked 150th in, while North Korea was at 149. For the past five years the average annual economic growth rate was 2.9 percent, the lowest among South East Asian countries.
In 1948, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, won independence from Britain, the country adopted a non-aligned socialism. Political instability and financial difficulties ended in a military coup d’etat led by General Ne Win in 1962. Ne win devised a Burmese socialism, a mixture of socialism and Buddhist values, and pushed for nationalization of key industries. But the result was inefficiency in the private sector and economic contraction. In 1988, a democratic uprising erupted and the military government cracked down, killing hundreds of activists.
In the 1990 general elections, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a sweeping victory, with 82 percent of seats in the country’s parliament. But the military government annulled the result and kept it’s grip on power. Since then the country’s name has been synonymous with oppression.
A democracy movement is now sweeping Myanmar again. Because Buddhist monks are leading the protest, some call it a saffron revolution.
Ordinary citizens have joined the monks and more than 100,000 protesters marched through Rangoon, the former capital of the country. The junta warned of a crack down and ordered a curfew in the area. It is reported that the military government has already positioned two army divisions in Rangoon. The entire world is watching to see whether the military government will repeat the violent crackdowns of the past.
It is highly meaningful that Buddhist monks are leading the protests in Myanmar, a center for Hinayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia. A military crack down will probably cause a furious response from the entire populace because 90 percent of the people are Buddhists. Some believe that China, which will soon host the Olympic Games, is pressing Myanmar’s military government to keep quiet.
The protest was sparked by the dictatorship’s decision to raise fuel prices by up to 500 percent on Aug. 15. This shows that the military government’s development policy has failed. The military government attempted to achieve political stability through repressive rule in order to bring economic growth. They failed. The only choice left for a country desperate for economic growth is to embrace political democracy and open its doors.
Will the military dictatorship choose this option? Depending on its actions Myanmar will either become a total failure or have an opportunity for growth. There is no short-cut from dictatorship to democratic civilian rule. Chaos and instability for a certain period are inevitable. Nevertheless, democracy is the only way that guarantees a future for a country that, when it was free and prosperous, was called Burma.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok