M D Nalapat
- Karl Marx wrote that when history repeats itself, the first time is a tragedy and the second time only a farce. 25 years ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming majority in the Myanmarese Parliament, only to have the result ignored by the Myanmar military, who placed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, in house arrest and continued to govern the country.
The law in that country was made by the military rulers which provided that any citizen with a foreign passport or children with a foreign passport would be ineligible to become the Prime Minister, a law clearly designed to prevent Suu Kyi from taking over that post. It is understandable if someone with a foreign passport be deprived of the right to become the Prime Minister, because those holding this most sensitive of posts should be loyal exclusively to the country and to none other. However, it is illogical to extend such a provision to those who are citizens but who have ever been married to non-citizens, or whose children are non-citizens.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has proved her loyalty to Myanmar and her love for the country by not leaving it even when her husband (and father of her two children) was dying of disease in the UK. The military government was willing to give her only a one-way ticket, and this was unacceptable to the steely, charismatic, lady. Given her popularity and her dedication, the law restricting her from being sworn in as the PM needs to be done away with, and hopefully this will be on the immediate agenda of the new government, which will undoubtedly be that of the NLD.
Under the Myanmar Constitution, 25% of the seats in the Myanmar Parliament are reserved for the military; and should the generals support a move to do away with the prohibition on Suu Kyi becoming the PM, relations between the two will thaw almost immediately. The Myanmar leader has shown a willingness not to allow the past to affect her approach in the present, and if the hand of friendship extended by such an attitude is reciprocated by the military, much of the stability essential for large-scale international investment will be assured. The biggest beneficiary will be the military, because (a) the armed forces directly and indirectly are in control of the bulk of the organised economy of the country and (b) an expansion of the economy means more funds to pay for a better equipped military. As the trajectory of the Soviet Union has shown, to base a big military on a small economy, will end in disaster.
Myanmar is on its course to attract upto $ 125 billion in foreign investment over the next three years, provided that there is the political stability possible through a cooperative relationship between the NLD and the armed forces. Such a high level of investment would ensure the ending of poverty in the country within a generation, provided policies that are pro-growth and not pro-crony are taken. The problem in South Asia is that crony capitalism has drained away much of the vitality of private industry. In India for example, the bureaucracy has ensured that its crony capitalist patrons are protected by regulations, including on foreign investment. A foreign company investing in the Defence sector, for example, can have only 49% of the equity in a company. The reason for this is not the protection of the national interest, but an attempt to force an intending investor to agree to a well-connected Indian partner who will retain control. Had there been no cap, few foreigners would have joined such collaboration, especially with inefficient crony capitalists who are expert only at getting concessions from the government at the expense of the national interest.
As it is, the 49% cap will ensure that almost all serious players will keep out of India, as they have no desire to take the hints thrown in their direction by the bureaucracy to join hands as a minority partner with a crony capitalist. Hopefully, Myanmar will be more rational in its policies towards external investment than India has been. 25 years is a long time, and much has changed during this period. Given the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has demonstrated her hold over the voter so convincingly, and her devotion to the country by opting to remain in house arrest within Myanmar than a comfortable life in another country, it is reasonable to expect that the military in Myanmar will ensure that the space for her and the team led by her is sufficient to ensure effective governance.
Unless there is effective governance, unless jobs are provided to young people within the country in the hundreds of thousands, unless the tax base increases through economic expansion, there will be the same chaos that was seen in Egypt. While commentators blame the Wahabbization of Egyptian society by Mohammad Morsi as the reason for his downfall, a more potent cause was the impact of his social policies on economic growth. Tourism and the service sector contracted sharply during his brief term in office as President of Egypt, sparking off the unrest that brought him down.
Economic growth is essential for political stability, and the more moderate and inclusive the policies and approach followed, the better the climate for development. Chronic sectarianism and violence are killers of the “feel good” atmosphere vital to the optimism required for people to give their best in their occupations rather than simply while away their time as was the case for two decades in the Soviet Union, until it collapsed. In foreign policy, Myanmar needs to ensure close relations with China, the US-EU and India. The manner in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has comported herself during the decades of house arrest and the trauma she has undergone fighting for democracy give confidence that the NLD will follow such a course.
President Thein Sein and his followers, although they have lost the election, need to be congratulated for having ushered in democracy into Myanmar. Should the outgoing leadership and the incoming administration adopt a comradely attitude towards each other, the vast potential of the Myanmarese economy will get realised within a decade, especially given the talented population in that country. Ideally, the law should be amended to facilitate Suu Kyi as the President of Myanmar. Closer cooperation rather than friction between the military and the NLD would be the best case scenario for this important regional power.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.