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Will Forever Flow the Ayeyarwady? 
In Myanmar, in over forty years of post-war political history,
momentous events seem to have been precipitated by political
rather than economic imperatives: the split of the pre-
independent national coalition in 1947, the outbreak of multiple
insurgencies after independence, the breakup of the ruling
national front in 1958 and the subsequent /coup d'etat/ leading
to the establishment of the one-party socialist state. When
foreign capitalist influences waned after independence, Myanmar
did not have any deep-seated economic conflicts. The land
nationalization act of 1950 clearly removed any possible
remaining contentious social divisions between land-owners and
peasants. The failure of the communist rebellion also suggests
the absence of an underlying deep economic cleavage in the
society. The splits, take-overs, and breakups that characterized
the political process were more the outcome of factionalism,
personality clashes, and the inherent inability of the Myanmar to
work on a give-and-take, conciliatory, or consensual basis among
themselves. At this juncture, in the most critical stage of
Myanmar's move towards a modern state, finding an amenable
political solution acceptable to all major actors has become the
central theme again.      
Recent Political Events 
If events during 1993 can be taken at face value, the ruling
authorities can congratulate themselves for their tenacity to
hold on and for the turn of events in their favour.
    First, the national convention convened for drawing up the
constitution, which began early in 1993, has only a minority of
elected representatives while groups more amenable to the wishes
of the ruling group constitute the rest. Moreover, the military
authorities have stipulated a set of six-point guidelines, which
among others clearly state the dominant role of the military in
the new state system.
    In the initial stage, even among these selected groups of
delegates a consensus on what topics or headings should be
included in the deliberations could not he reached. Since the
basic principles of the proposed constitution were not first
agreed upon, some topics concerning issues and matters perceived
as threatening to their own special interests were disputed by
the respective groups of delegates.
     What emerged from the sessions of the convention by late
1993 was that the new state structure will embody the following
principal characteristics:  
     1. A republic with an executive president, elected by
     an electoral college, as the head of state. The
     presidential candidate must be capable of handling
     high-level military affairs. 
     2. The state system will be a Union constituting seven
     regions and seven states with equal status. Separate
     executive, judicial, and legislative powers to be
     shared among the "Union, regions, states, and
     self-administered areas". 
     3. A bicameral Union Parliament and separate
     parliaments for each region and state. 
     4. Complete autonomy for the military. 
     5. Nomination by the Commander-in-Chief of military
     officers to the Union Parliament and all other elected
     assemblies down to the district level. Also assignment
     of military officers to executive positions in the
     administrative hierarchy down to the district level. 
     6. The statutory right for the Supreme Commander to
     assume state power in a national emergency, defined as
     and when disturbances and violence are used to usurp
     state power, or when there is danger of disintegration
     of the Union and national solidarity as well as the
     loss of national sovereignty.
     The last three points and the executive presidency were not
endorsed by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Shan
National League for Democracy (SNLD), which together won over 80
per cent of the seats in the 1990 election. They voiced the view
that though the important contribution of the military to the
stability of the forthcoming state system must be duly
acknowledged, in a genuine democracy the elected Parliament
should be the supreme state authority. All other groups
representing workers, peasants, intelligentsia, civil servants,
and selected nationalities, chosen by the ruling authorities went
along with SlORC guidelines and came up with principles similar
to those described above. In a subsequent plenary session, a
synthesis in the form of the aforementioned principles emerged
which will be further elaborated and finalized.
    Secondly, a formula for dealing with the ethnic insurrections
that have been going on in the name of self-determination for
over four decades in Myanmar's peripheral regions has been worked
out by the SLORC. It was first used with ex-communist Wa and
Kokang ethnic groups and entailed a cease-fire, conversion of the
rebel military wing into a local militia, and co-option of rebel
leaders as local indigenous leaders. ln fact a temporary /de
facto/ autonomy is granted to these groups, whose members are
allowed to reside and do business anywhere in Myanmar.
      Apart from Kokang, Wa, and several minor armed ethnic
groups, the government has recently reached a cease-fire
agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization (KI0) and is
likely to conclude a pact along similar lines. This may well have
been prompted by China's desire to promote communications and
trade links with Myanmar via the Kachin state. As China
accelerates its development, Myanmar has increasingly become an
important gateway to the sea for southwestern Chinese provinces.
Border trade with China is growing very rapidly and as such all
these interests have reinforced China's desire to foster an
orderly and peaceful atmosphere in the Myanmar-China border area.
   The anti-SLORC alliance of armed ethnic groups and other
dissidents known as the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) has
been much weakened by the KIO's direct deal with the government
outside the collective framework previously agreed upon among its
members. Earlier, the DAB had laid down the following
pre-conditions for any dialogue with the government:  
     1. The Alliance will only enter into any discussion
     with the government as a group. 
     2. All political prisoners must be released before any
     discussion with the government. 
     3. Any negotiation or talks will take place in a
     neutral place outside Myanmar.
     It therefore seems that the Karen National Union is now left
holding the defunct DAB. Under pressure from both sides of the
Myanmar-Thai border where they had been ensconced for decades the
Karens finally seem to have relented. They have expressed
willingness to enter into negotiations with the Myanmar
Government for political autonomy as part of a collective
    This leaves the non-ethnic democratic opposition groups, the
National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) and
students at the border with an uncertain future. The NCGUB,
though favourably looked upon by Western and West European
governments, did not make much headway in their cause and are
likely to be marginalized once armed ethnic conflict with the
SLORC ceases.
    Thirdly, on the international front, the SLORC has probably
scored a favourable stand-off. Some improvements during the year,
such as the release of political prisoners and the holding of the
constitutional convention elicited some positive expectations
even on the part of the Western governments generally
antagonistic to the military regime. The waning of the American
resolve to push human rights issues and the general disengagement
of the United States from the predominant role in international
peace-keeping operations also further lessens the possibility of
strong sanctions from the Western community.
Emerging Patterns 
Strategies are not always explicitly and deliberately devised.
Many often emanate from an incremental learning process. Probably
in the beginning, when the military leaders took power they just
wanted to stave off social chaos as well as the sweeping tide of
a people's power revolution. Fear of an imminent disintegration
of the armed forces was probably the prime motive behind their
action. They were also compelled to promise the holding of
multi-party elections as the overwhelming desire of the people
could not be ignored, However, as their grip on the situation
became stronger, the resolve to ensure the military's continuing
role in defining the parameters of power in the future state also
strengthened. After successful travails against dissidents and
detractors, the original position of safeguarding corporate and
individual interests has evolved into one of extending the
military's direct participation into the future national
political process and governance.
    It is now fairly clear that the military have set out to
determine the future power configuration by seeking a format that
would legitimize their participation while accommodating to some
extent the popular demand for democracy. This can be inferred
from the ways in which the national convention has been carried
out and the manner in which the ethnic issue was tackled.    
Major elements of the emerging strategy can be identified thus:
     1. The military will be a dominant and self-
     perpetuating institution not accountable to the elected
     or civilian authority. 
     2. Representative democracy will largely operate in the
     limited spheres of interest articulation and
     legislative affirmation of executive decision-making. 
     3. The economy will be left mainly to the private
     sector but the military may be involved as a corporate
     entity as well as individually. Ex-members of and those
     connected to the military establishment are expected to
     play an active and significant role in private
     business. Business practices of the Thai and Indonesian
     military establishment will probably serve as  
     relevant examples. Such opportunities are expected to
     contribute towards cohesion and corporate loyalty.
     The strategy seems to assume that the border areas, which
enjoy a semi-autonomous status, will prosper economically and
become integrated within the Myanmar state gradually; while
opposition in the Myanmar heartland will wither away as the
economy progresses. Groups that still remain intransigent will be
"handled" militarily or through persuasion.
     The military leadership is probably also making the
assumption that with the opening of the economy to international
investors and businesses, Myanmar as a whole will prosper, as for
other open economies in the region. With more, though limited,
participation of elected representatives in public affairs, the
economically satisfied and better-off population will eventually
not want to pursue the democratic ideal for its own sake. As
such, the democratic opposition movement as well as its renowned
leader will be marginalized.
     Whether such an optimistic scenario materializes will depend
upon the following conditions: First, the rate of economic growth
will have to be consistently high for a fairly long period, say
at least ten years. Second. the fruits of economic progress must
be more equitably shared among different strata of the
population. Third, economic and political developments in
neighbouring countries as well as developments in the
international economy should not impinge too adversely on
Problems and Limits of the Emerging Strategy
As regards conditions for the rapid growth of the economy, the
importance of appropriate physical infrastructure cannot be
overstated. The existing stock of physical infrastructure is so
limited and dilapidated that large-scale international official
development assistance (ODA) will be needed. Likewise,
technological development and training will require an equally
large dose of investment. Retraining adult workers technically
and training and educating the youth need time to take effect.
Without these improvements, large inflow of private
entrepreneurial resources may not materialize.
    What Myanmar needs by way of business capital is a large
amount of private investment for value-added and growth
industries which will tie up capital for a longer period. Such
large-scale long-term investment, in turn, will need a stable and
open political atmosphere and Myanmar's access to markets in the
industrialized world. All these cannot materialize without the
goodwill generated by satisfying some of the minimal demands for
human rights and representative government. Without substantial
improvement in these fields, the flow of assistance and
consequently the flow of capital will only be a trickle and
Myanmar will not be able to attain a high rate of growth.
    The next problem identified is concerned with how the
military as an all-encompassing and self-perpetuating institution
could overcome systemic failures inherent in the new arrangement
and roles assumed under the new supra-organizational doctrine.
Myanmar's military grew out of the patriotic struggle against
imperialism, both West and East. Its image of self-sacrificing
young nationalists in rag-tag uniforms undergoing military
training to fight for freedom has lingered on. The term,
/Tatmadaw/, Royal Army, was bestowed with fondness and
admiration. On the other hand, the image of the wheeling-and-
dealing businessman and of official jostling for a larger and
larger share of the economic pie does not square well with the
traditional ideal of the selfless soldier-patriot. This business
role is also in conflict with the military's primary role,
namely, professionalism. The greatest danger is that the business
or self-seeking role could sow dissensions within the rank and
file of the military establishment itself. If accumulating
personal wealth is seen as the goal, even if it is a hidden one,
of those in leadership positions, the conflict of interests among
themselves could lead to rift and instability. This discord could
grow as the democratic opposition weakens or the threat of the
contending forces subsides. On the other hand, the military's
role as a group with vested economic interests is double-edged in
its effects. Its very success in garnering a share in the
economic pie will further isolate the military from the general
population or become a source of envy for other social groups.
Also, the opportunities for corruption will increase under the
new arrangement in which the military maintains control over all
spheres of state power. The separation of powers is formalized
but the military will participate or influence all three branches
of government. The  decisive power resting with the military may
provide stability and continuity but its side-effects could be
     Another important question is how would Myanmar's military
fare in its new dominant but mixed role as a collective
decision-maker in the new political set-up. Myanmar's military
has had no experience of running the country under relatively
pluralistic or permissive circumstances. It has been used to
operating as a stern disciplinarian or a top-down decision-maker.
Going by the experience of successful East Asian countries,
power-sharing among different elites, relatively free flow of
information, rational economic decision-making, an efficient
bureaucracy, and an impartial and effective legal system are
deemed to be basic ingredients of all-round development. It has
been repeatedly observed that the wide degree of freedom granted
to civil servants and technocrats or insulating them from
political pressures in making rational economic choices and
effectively implementing them contributed in no small measure to
the success of progressive economic policies.
     However, in Myanmar since 1962 the role of top civil
servants whose experience could be very useful even under the new
circumstances, had been down-graded and many of them replaced by
loyal cadres who subscribed to the new socialist order. The
continuity of the judicial tradition has also been disrupted
because only elected representatives could serve as judges under
the socialist regime. All this is in sharp contrast with the
situation in Indonesia where the military rulers co-opted
intellectuals, economists, and other professionals into the
ruling group from the outset. In fact, the so-called Berkeley
Mafia, a group of able economists, reputedly engineered the
Indonesian modernization-cum-development process. It is difficult
to envisage the Myanmar military to radically change its mindset,
given its history of "absolutism" or the tradition of "we alone
can do" doctrine.
     How efficiently can the system be run under the new
political set-up of market economy? In successful East Asian
states the government usually restricts itself to providing basic
services and maintaining law and order and stability. The
direction of the economy is guided according to long-term
objectives but the operation of the economy is left to the
private sector with a minimum of interference from the
government. The government in this setting provides effective and
efficient service to all including the business community. The
reorganization of the bloated bureaucracy, keeping costs down,
and operating according to accepted principles of law are
considered as requisites for a viable market economy. In fact,
the success of one of the best-performing market economies,
Singapore, may be attributed in no small measure to these
qualities of good government. However, the system likely to
emerge in Myanmar will probably be plagued by a number of both
external and systematic weaknesses that are counter-productive to
the emergence of efficient government organizations.
     The first will be the problem of legitimacy on the part of
the power-holders, which will make it difficult for them to take
unpopular but necessary action, such as the retrenchment of
surplus workers. Legitimacy here means not the legal authority
which is most likely to be affirmed in a referendum, but moral
and emotional acceptance and voluntary compliance on the part of
the population regarding the mandate to rule. Lack of wholesale
popular support and acceptance will make it difficult for the
government to act "lean and mean". We have noted that so far the
government has not dealt with the problem of redundancy in the
government or the corporatization or privatization of state
economic enterprises, which will involve shedding surplus labour.
Successful developmental experiences of the newly industrialized
East Asian countries show that governments often have to take
necessary but unpopular measures for long-term national interest.
In such circumstances political legitimacy or strong public
support of the government is crucial. To catch up with other
economies. Myanmar will have to demand public sacrifice or
undertake measures adversely effecting the interests of powerful
constituencies. Only a popular government with a strong and
genuine mandate or a leader with overwhelming support from the
masses will be able to accomplish long-term national objectives. 
       A second potential weakness is in the new system itself,
which seems to emphasize social and political control rather than
openness and responsiveness. Military participation in the
administration will not be conducive to the development of an
independent and efficient civil service, given the habit of the
Myanmar military to want to do things its own way. As it is,
since the abolition of the old administrative system in the 1960s
the administration has functioned only at the beck and call of
the power-holders and their agents. Administrative impartiality,
the strict rule of law, or the reliability and predictability of
administrative actions have lost their relevance. This
overwhelming control will not further the re-emergence of an
efficient, impartial, and consistent administrative system that
is surely needed for an open market economy. Moreover
inefficiency due to rent-seeking, high transaction costs, and
favouritism could be another systematic weakness that will
adversely effect the functioning of the market economy.
     In the present state of the economy within the context of
the changing world order, an emulation of the Indonesian model
dating back to the 1960s is hardly innovative. First, the Cold
War confrontation between the super-powers no longer exists, so
that it is inappropriate to expect ready support from the great
powers for the planned Myanmar system. Everywhere, the military's
role is changing and even in developing countries it is moving
into a more strategic function rather than continuing as a social
controller. Secondly, conditions leading to the introduction of
the new system in the two countries are very different. The
Indonesian military took power to remedy the social chaos and
economic ruin caused by years of mis-rule, whereas in Myanmar's
case the military took over to re-establish its authority after a
brief period of social upheaval against the long-standing
military-socialist regime. Thus a cleavage between the military
and the people has occurred unintentionally or unwittingly.
Thirdly, in Indonesia the political process for consultation and
consensus as well as the mechanism to imbibe them had existed in
the form of a national culture. As such, the military
conveniently fitted into the setting as a stabilizing force.
Unlike in Myanmar, there have been continuity and concord within
the state-society nexus. In Myanmar, the polity's demand is for a
new political system which every citizen expects to be responsive
and representative. Fourthly, the Myanmar people had gone through
a long process of different political experiences, and at this
juncture they aspire for a new social order which is responsive
and representative. It should be noted that the Myanmar polity
had experienced five pre-war national elections, choosing their
representatives to assume ever-increasing political powers from
1920 to 1940. Furthermore, after independence there had been five
general elections (excluding those under the one-party socialist
system), which allowed the choice of representatives in a
relatively free and fair atmosphere. The Myanmar people have been
exposed to the rule of law, the Western legal system, and
democratic values for a long period of time. As such, they are
more than ready for representative government at this stage
though they will surely recognize that the military could be a
pillar for the stability of the democratic state.
    With the interplay of such factors in the new set-up, fast
economic growth is doubtful. The government's lack of bargaining
power and the cash-strapped situation could even lead to economic
decisions that may have far-reaching consequences in the long
run. The promotion and development of Myanmar's indigenous
entrepreneurs and the development of high-value-added industry or
labour-intensive and skill-intensive industries will be delayed
or neglected. The slow rate of growth coupled with inequitable
distribution favouring privileged groups may create a social
divide never experienced before in the past. As such, the
emerging pattern could resemble the Latin-American or Philippine
road to stagnation and social inequity than the East Asian model
of prosperity for all.
    The most serious matter will be the eventual outcome of the
informal granting of semi-autonomous status to the armed ethnic
groups in their own territories. In the earlier years. when the
neighbouring countries themselves were still economically
under-developed, it was the Myanmar heartland, that is, the
Ayeyarwady valley, not the periphery, that served as the economic
dynamo of the country. In fact, the Ayeyarwady valley was the
centre of economic activities. One reason past insurrections in
the peripheral states did not succeed was their economic
insignificance and geographical isolation. The situation today is
different: with the neighbouring countries developing very fast
and with the development of regional groupings or growth areas,
the peripheries of Myanmar can now thrive economically and
politically, confederated to a larger market.
    Thus, the present policy of postponing the solution of the
Union problem is tantamount to playing with a time bomb. We have
to assume that the minority groups too know that the present
arrangement is transitional and that they would be eventually
"handled" by the central government. In the meantime, because of
border trade, the complementary nature of regional economies, and
if the progress of development in Myanmar proper faltered, these
regions may grow faster than the Myanmar heartland and become
rapidly tied up with the economies of neighbouring countries. The
stronger the economic ties between these states and neighbouring
countries, the more intractable the problem of ethnic autonomy
will be. Will Myanmar's centre be able to "handle" the periphery
when it becomes integrated with powerful neighbours?
What attitude the Myanmar military takes towards the problem of
development will ultimately influence what strategies they
follow. There is the danger that immediate or short-term
considerations will take precedence over long-term needs. From
the military's point of view, the threat of Myanmar's democratic
opposition to the predominant position of the incumbents looms
very large. However, in the long run the interests of democratic
groups and those of the military will converge or overlap to a
great extent. In the short run, the whole political situation
appears to be a zero-sum game, whereby one side gains at the
equivalent expense of the other. Nevertheless, in the long view,
national development is a non-zero-sum situation which benefits
all: the economic pie becoming much larger and all having their
fair shares.
     In fact, impending social and economic changes and attendant
threats and opportunities should form the basis of an evolving
Myanmar strategy for the future, subsuming short-term sectional
interests. In the next twenty to twenty-five years, the following
changes can be expected.
     First, the Southeast Asian nations will continue to grow at
a sufficiently rapid pace along with all other East Asian
economies to join the ranks of the NICs. Consequently, region-
wide development will take place. Geographical proximity will
have an important bearing on development.
     Second, while Japan will rejuvenate and maintain its
advanced industrial economy, China will emerge as a very powerful
industrial power. Both Japan and China will have direct interest
in Southeast Asia for its natural resources, as a market for
their products, and also as staging areas for some of their
transferred industries.
     Third, problems relating to the sharing of common natural
resources and globalization such as sharing water and fishing
rights, exploration of ocean floors, migratory pressures, market
access, and transportation are likely to become bones of
contention. In this context, Myanmar occupies a very delicate
position sandwiched between two giant neighbours, India and
China. Myanmar's strategic geography in relation to China also
will become more important as China develops. The land-locked
southwestern parts of China could have a shorter route to the sea
through Myanmar than through Chinese seaports. This also will be
thousands of miles shorter than the usual sea route through the
Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. Unwittingly, Myanmar
will become a very important variable in the development calculus
of southwest China. In addition, with the most favourable
land-man ratio within the region, Myanmar could also be a
tempting target for spillover migration from its more populous
   Within this overall context, Myanmar has to carve out its
distinctive economic role and national existence for the future.
It will have to hitch onto the rising tide of growth in the
region and make the best out of its comparative advantage based
on its natural resources, human resources and capabilities and
its own unique geographic position. Apart from opportunities,
serious threats to the very existence of the Myanmar state must
also be recognized. Disintegration of the Union through /de
facto/ integration of peripheral regions with economically
dominant neighbours is very real. Through no fault of its own,
Myanmar's independent existence can be swept away in an intra- or
inter- regional conflict. The remark by an astute observer of the
Myanmar scene forty years ago that it should not be surprising if
Myanmar accidentally or inadvertently becomes part of China in
the next hundred years is still pertinent. Myanmar has to steer
its way very nimbly through these uncertain waters and forge its
own destiny amidst rapid external changes.
     In this new mission, national consensus, reconciliation, and
an early agreement among all contending forces for the future
course of action is a must for both national survival and
renewal. All parties must be convinced that their interests can
be served by working together, not against each other. Just as
there is a need for a national leader who can marshal
overwhelming support to carry out national reforms in a
non-contentious way, there will be an even greater role for the
military in moulding Myanmar's long-term strategy for national
development. Myanmar needs a modernized military, professionally
capable of defending its vital interests in the twenty-first
century. It must also be impressed upon all parties that no
Myanmar with a balanced frame of mind needs ever question the
importance of the military as a stabilizing factor in Myanmar
politics. What the ordinary citizen wants is the rule of law and
a genuinely representative government with ultimate authority
descending from the people. Minorities, on the other hand, are
also tired of armed conflict, uncertain status, and impoverished
conditions. They are asking for a dignified and definite place in
the new Myanmar community of equal and enlightened members.  This
is the most opportune moment for national reconciliation and
     However, this may yet be a barren hope, especially when one
contending party is on the seemingly unstoppable ascendancy to
power. Myanmar's traditions of /Apyok taik yei/ (fight to the
finish) could be too strong to be reversed by reason and
foresight. We have to bear in mind that things are not what they
seem to be in Myanmar. The most elaborate social edifice ever
introduced in Myanmar under the socialist regime fell through
when the people's long-term interests were not served. Myanmar is
prone to alternating between cycles of docile acquiescence and
social eruptions. Myanmar's polity is unlike that of the Thais or
the Indonesians in the 1960s. The same formula may not work. It
should be realized that when the peripheral regions are gone and
forests are denuded ruthlessly, the Ayeyarwady may literally dry
up, with what remains of Myanmar degenerating to a sub-Sahara
stasis. It has been the overwhelming desire of Myanmar citizens
for decency, dignity, and self-expression in the matter of
national policy. We hope that the scenario painted earlier about
Myanmar's road to disaster is never actualized.
    There is an urgent need for a national leader who is able to
comprehend all these implications and has taken Myanmar's
interest to heart: one who commands overwhelming respect and
admiration of the whole military as well as the society at large.
Only such a leader can bring all parties together to establish a
common national destiny and an inspiring mission acceptable to
all. Will Myanmar ever reclaim its rightful place in the
community of nations, burying all narrow sectional interests?
More emphatically, will the Ayeyarwady flow forever? 
This thoughtful text by Khin Maung Kyi, published in "Southeast
Asian Affairs" 1994, has become a classic among those concerned
for the long-term political and economic future of Burma. 
Khin Maung Kyi is Senior Fellow at the Department of Business
Policy, National University of Singapore. He was formerly
Professor at Rangoon Institute of Economics, University of
Pertanian, Malaysia, and Associate Professor at the National
University of Singapore.
[1] The use of /xxxxx/ around a word indicates italics