Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 14 (September 2013). Myanmar
Changes in Myanmar over the past three years have indeed been dizzying. A cursory look at the turn of events since 201 in will persuade any doubters of the genuineness of the country’s transition. The question, however, is where it is transitioning to and how best to understand the transition?
After their visits to Myanmar, Thomas Carothers and Larry Diamond, two of the world’s leading scholars of democratization, reached a similar conclusion: Naypyidaw’s goals, definition and modus operandi of ‘democracy’ are at odds with the essence of a representative government.
Carothers likens Myanmar’s reforms with the Arab leadership’s top-down reforms in the decade prior to the violent Arab Spring. In his own words, “The steps taken by Arab governments were not democratizing reforms, rather they were carefully circumscribed efforts designed precisely to head off the possibility of true democratization by alleviating popular dissatisfaction with regimes.” 1 Diamond was more direct, “I think the transition is still very much in an early stage and it is not clear by any means at this point that electoral democracy will be the outcome of it or that electoral democracy is the intended outcome.” 2
But why is the international community cuddling the country’s ex-generals and generals and showering Naypyidaw with “aid packages” worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of the people, reforms and democratic transition? These global words of praise and aid for the reformists are taking place at the same time as the unfolding Rohingya’s ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, 3 the anti-Muslim mass violence by the “neo-Nazi Buddhist campaign” 4, the sharp rise in Kachin war refugees, and Naypyidaw’s widely reported complicity and responsibility? 5
The blunt answer is “global capitalism.” Myanmar’s generals have agreed to the externally assisted transformation of the country’s ailing political economy along free market lines in exchange for access to the emerging lucrative frontier economy. However, noteworthy is the fact that the full-scale reengagement of the liberal Western Myanmar is largely on Naypyidaw’s terms, a few concessions here and there notwithstanding. 6
“We need to zero in on the single most consequential ongoing global process, namely the capitalist transformation of Myanmar as a frontier market”
Factually, through the typical eyes of the global capitalists, Myanmar is first and foremost a “resource brothel”, the hottest “frontier market” 7 and a strategic linchpin for respective “grand strategies” in the seemingly eternal game of Great Powers, on the rise or on the wane. Human communities as “markets” and “sources of resources and labour” have been a rather durable view of any country on earth with land, resources and labour since large-scale, technologically driven capitalist transformation was unleashed several hundred years ago.
Fast forward to the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw in June 2013, it was about the elite-led “democracy”, skilled “civil society” and a socially responsible corporate-assisted “free market”. But in essence, the international policies toward Myanmar are designed to extract optimal spoils out of one of the world’s last few remaining frontier markets; the other is North Korea.
This June, former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was seen drinking Coke straight out of its fat plastic bottle at a ceremony in Yangon where Coca Cola, one of her corporate clients for her Albright-Stonebridge Consulting Firm, 8 opened the first-ever bottling factory in Myanmar. 9 As Chair of the US National Democratic Institute, Albright was reportedly in the country to promote democracy, interfaith and to teach “the people who have never had a sip” how to drink Coke properly. But the Americans are not alone.
Amidst the unfolding pogroms against the Rohingya and other Muslims and the documented complicity of the authorities at the highest level, 10 the Islamic state of Qatar has no qualms about co-winning and accepting multibillion dollar telecom contracts in Myanmar along with Norway. The official peace-mediators in Oslo have indeed secured a rather lucrative phone contract for its national Telenor from the 2012 Nobel Peace short-listed President Thein Sein, while the Kachins, the Karens, the Shan, the Karenni and the Mon are still waiting for the successful outcome of Oslo’s peace mediation. 11 Phones before peace! Telanor for peace!