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'Spend mentality' won't help the new Burma

Duncan MacLaren |  19 February 2013

Mae Sot group work'Development is the new name for peace,' said Pope Paul VI in his groundbreaking encyclical on development, The Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio) in 1967.

Well, not in Burma where a war in Kachin State in the north has displaced 90,000 people and where the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan State, rendered stateless by a whim of the regime in 1982, have been caught up in a spiral of violence with Buddhist Arakanese, resulting in killings and displacement of 100,000 people.

Such horror stories don't concern the Western and Chinese business people who have been given the green light by their governments to 'develop' Burma, and sweep, salivating, into Yangon.

They are seemingly oblivious to war and the ongoing human rights abuses over remaining political prisoners, restrictions on those released, land confiscation, forced labour, right of assembly and the failure of so-called reforms to meet international standards. They are there to do business and make money.

I have just returned from teaching a unit on an introduction to international development studies as part of the ACU Diploma in Liberal Studies program offered to Burmese refugees and migrants from camps and villages on the Thai-Burma border. This unit is part of a new ACU Bachelor of International Development Studies degree.

Unlike many other such degrees, its focus isn't on anthropology or economics but on people-centred development — an integral development that covers all aspects of human life but especially the life of the poor. Within that, economic growth is regarded as a means to making the lives of the poor more human not as an end in itself or to encourage the 'Tesco ergo sum' mentality — I spend therefore I am.

Instead, the form of development taught is akin to the 1995 UN definition of community development: 'a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with its active participation and the fullest possible reliance on the community's initiative', with an emphasis on human dignity.

One of the first exercises I did with the students was to have them draw a 'mind map' where the word 'development' was placed in the centre of a sheet and connections made from their knowledge and experience.

What they presented was a development that addressed the appalling health statistics and child mortality rates, gender inequality, lack of proper education and social welfare as well as the need for democratic and devolved governance that might lift the Burmese people from being 149th in the UN's global Human Development Index.

The students also feared that the kind of 'development' to be ushered in by the foreign business people streaming into the 'new' Burma of reforms was not going to benefit their people.

Only two months after President's Obama visit to the former pariah state, a US-Myanmar Business Council endorsed by 70 executives from 38 companies, the first in 27 years, has been formed. Special economic zones are being planned where the daily wage, according to one minister, will be 200 baht ($6.45) a day as opposed to the Thais' 300 baht ($9.60) a day to ensure they undercut their neighbour in low wages. Those are official figures but, in reality, the wages paid will likely be much less.

The new foreign investment law passed in November 2012 by the Burmese Parliament will allow foreigners to own 100 per cent of their operations and are guaranteed 'tax holidays' for at least five years. The director of the Myanmar Investment Commission, Aung Naing Oo, assuaged Western concerns about labour unrest by stating that Myanmar had banned labour unions in the past and that 'Unions in our country would not be so active because we are in an early stage'.

The dollars paid by Thailand for natural gas from Burma have not resulted in health or education budgets being increased. The new gas pipeline from Arakan State to Yunnan in China which becomes operational later this year has led to the forced displacement of Kachin and Shan people, and civil society is not free or equipped enough to advocate for the vast profits from this to be channelled into development projects that will benefit Burma's poor.

It looks as if the fears of our students in discussing 'development' in Burma — that it will be business as usual with exploitation of the poor but under the guise of 'democratic' capitalism — are well founded.

Duncan MacLaren headshotDuncan MacLaren lectures in international development studies at Australian Catholic University in Sydney and coordinates its Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma Border offering tertiary education to Burmese refugees and migrants. Pictured: Mae Sot group work.



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Submitted comments

1. Burma did best under the British administration when it was the second wealthiest country in S.E. Asia. Since World War II and especially the 1960's it has been socialist, with the sad but boringly predictable consequence that it has become one of poorest countries in the world. 2. The Burmese state nationalized its oil. No doubt it spends the proceeds of its sale to Thailand in a corrupt manner. Hardly democratic capitalism or the free market. In fact, the very antithesis. 3. In fact, the free market is the answer for Burma - especially its poorest - as it was for Hong Kong, the most brilliantly successful economy in history. 4. Countries all over the world, advanced or developing, are opening up special economic zones, and finding they are a boon to their economies and their peoples. Australia is almost unique in the world in not thinking this through, and our citizenry will be the poorer for it. But in reality, an SEZ is in many ways a partial case of the free market (though, contra Burma, you can still have unions in an SEZ/free market). Burma would flourish if the whole country became a SEZ. The lesson of "SEZ" Hong Kong, with vastly fewer resources than Burma has, is there for all to see.

HH 19 February 2013

Thanks, Duncan, for your lifetime of work for justice and peace, and also for this latest piece. I'm in a small Aboriginal Justice Suppport Group that is the only remaining arm of Action for World Development. AWD was founded in the 70's(?), and for years sensitised people's consciences to issues like the one you write about in Burma. Though defunct some years now, it left a valuable legacy of awareness and concern for powerless and exploited people that makes me grateful for your continuing work.

Joe Castley 20 February 2013

Thanks Duncan! Always energized and inspired by your writing! Born in Rangoon,(Anglo Burmese, of parents also born and raised in Burma) and having returned now several times to beloved Burma, I am a strong advocate for justice for my people. Geraldine

Geraldine Kearney 20 February 2013

'Tesco ergo sum' - got it in a nutshell Duncan. The reason I always read your articles is that they are informed by listening to the people. I can hear their voices. What a privilege to be there.

steve sinn 20 February 2013

Off topic, but 'Tesco ergo sum' sums up the Rudd-Gillard-Swan legacy rather well.

HH 22 February 2013

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