Myanmar: Economic Policy Direction Remains Unclear


Robert H Taylor

The ouster of the Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, in October, following the removal of the former Foreign Minister, U Win Aung, and the subsequent departure of the Home Minister, Colonel Tin Hlaing, and the Labour Minister, U Tin Win, in November, lead many observers to conclude that Myanmar's military rulers were adopting more 'hard line' policies toward its foreign and domestic political opponents. Such a reading of developments grew out of several speculative observations. One was that General Khin Nyunt, and those identified with him, were the sole authors of the country's so far halting efforts to accommodate demands for political change, most particularly the seven step 'road map' to a constitutional government, as well as efforts to eradicate drug production, forced labour, and other human rights abuses. Another was the depth of the clean out of members of Military Intelligence (MI) personnel from the regime following the departure of the head of MI, also General Khin Nyunt.

Both of these speculative observations appear to have been based on erroneous assumptions drawn from the over personalisation of analysis. While General Khin Nyunt and the others who have been ousted were the public spokesmen and formal implementers of the government's political programmes over the past years, the formulation of these policies was carried out by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and, in particular, its chairman for the past 12 years, 71 year old Senior General Than Shwe. The government has lost no opportunity to insist that the change of Prime Minister means nothing in terms of changes in policy. Indeed, perceived retrospectively, one can see that the new faces, such as the Secretary 1, Lt General Thein Sein, who chairs the national convention, the first step in the road map, and the Prime Minister, Lt. General Soe Win, have gone out of their way to emulate the style and the rhetoric of their predecessor, General Khin Nyunt.

The widespread purge of MI personnel, and the replacement of MI by the Office of Military Affairs, Security (OMAS), demonstrates not a change in policy but the reassertion of the conventional army's predominance in the government. Over the years MI had aggrandised itself by assuming an increasingly public and private role not only in the presentation of the policy, but also in business and commercial affairs. The ostentatious display of wealth on the golf course and elsewhere by MI officers clearly rankled their less privileged colleagues. There were no tears shed by the sight of their removal. But the move has had a chilling effect on the bureaucracy for, until the situation becomes once more stable and routinised, officials, including perhaps the new ministers, will be reluctant to be seen to be making decisions. The oil, which MI poured over the creaking administrative machinery of Myanmar, will have to be replaced with a new lubricant if the government is not to cease up as it did prior to 1988.

This situation places increasing responsibility on the Senior General. No longer able to arbitrate between his junior rivals, he now has a new generation of officials with which to work. The men coming into office, now in their 50s, have had significantly different military careers than their predecessors. Many have been regional commanders, more familiar with the requirements of economic and infrastructural development than with guerrilla warfare. They may not be sophisticated in their understanding of modern economic conditions, but they expect to see their country develop in order to catch up with its neighbours. The Senior General will need to demonstrate to these men that he still has a role to play. Lacking the charisma which attached to his long serving predecessor as head of state, General Ne Win, Than Shwe faces severe pressures from below. No longer able to diffuse responsibility between General Khin Nyunt and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, all eyes will be on the Senior General.

While the political intentions of the SPDC appear to be set, it is less certain what the implications of the change in regime are for economic policy. Previous years have been marked by erratic and contradictory economic policy formulation as the regime has sought to deal ad hoc and piecemeal with one issue after another. Whether the new order can create the economic confidence essential for economic growth and investment, and therefore political stability, both inside and outside the armed forces, remains to be seen. The indications now are not promising. If the Senior General is as out of touch with economic reality in Myanmar today as appears to be the case, the junior ranks who want to avoid a repeat of the events of 1988 will be pushing for changes at the top.

WATCHPOINT: An expected reshuffle of regional commanders and the appointment of a number of new ministers, including perhaps new members of the State Peace and Development Committee, will indicate the how the regime intends to cope with the economy in the post-Khin Nyunt era.


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