How to unify a jaded polity in Myan­mar

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - DAVID DAPICE news­room@mm­times.com David Dapice is an econ­o­mist at the Ash Cen­ter for Demo­cratic Gov­er­nance and In­no­va­tion, John F Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment, Har­vard Univer­sity.

MYAN­MAR is tran­si­tion­ing from mil­i­tary rule to democ­racy – a dif­fi­cult project con­sid­er­ing that the coun­try has never been united. The dif­fi­cul­ties of this tran­si­tion date back to 1947 when the Pan­g­long Agree­ment was reached, which for­malised Myan­mar’s in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain. But while the Burmese mil­i­tary ar­gued for a uni­tary state, eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups wanted a choice of whether to re­main or se­cede from the newly es­tab­lished Union of Burma.

Since most of the nat­u­ral re­sources and al­most one-third of the pop­u­la­tion are in eth­nic states it was log­i­cal for the mil­i­tary to take this uni­fi­ca­tion stance. With­out these eth­nic states Myan­mar would have been much smaller and poorer. But the 50 years of con­flict that have fol­lowed has driven mil­lions of eth­nic peo­ple into Thai­land and other coun­tries, led to the pur­suance of poor eco­nomic and so­cial poli­cies, and fur­ther deep­ened many eth­nic di­vi­sions. Eth­nic states now want lim­ited au­ton­omy within Myan­mar and a share of the rev­enues from their own raw ma­te­ri­als.

In the past two decades an­other com­pli­ca­tion has arisen – jade. Jade has been mined for cen­turies, mainly for the Chi­nese mar­ket. In the early 1990s, pro­duc­tion was only a few hun­dred tonnes per year and mined with hand tools and dy­na­mite. But pro­duc­tion grew rapidly as jade prices be­gan to rise in China and the first round of cease­fire agree­ments brought about a ten­u­ous peace.

Es­ti­mates of jade sales are now in bil­lions of dol­lars per an­num and nei­ther the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Army nor the Tat­madaw want to sur­ren­der their ac­cess to such riches. Mem­bers of the Wa, a semi-au­ton­o­mous group sup­ported by China but nom­i­nally part of Myan­mar, own or con­trol many of the mines. Of­fi­cial taxes and roy­al­ties on jade are less than US$500 mil­lion a year, which is only 2-3 per­cent of sales. They should be much more. The most ex­pen­sive jade is taken di­rectly to China and isn’t sub­jected to any le­gal taxes.

The po­lit­i­cal econ­o­mist JS Fur­ni­vall, writ­ing in 1931, may have been right. Fur­ni­vall ar­gued that im­pe­ri­al­ism brought to­gether many dif­fer­ent peo­ples who rubbed shoul­ders and traded but didn’t have any real so­cial bond. He called this a plu­ral so­ci­ety. He said that un­less a more uni­fy­ing idea could bind them to­gether, like Pan­casila in In­done­sia, “We may find, af­ter a pe­riod of an­ar­chy more or less pro­longed, our de­scen­dants will find them­selves a prov­ince of China.” His point was not that China was ex­pan­sion­ist but that na­ture ab­hors a vac­uum and an­ar­chy.

So is there a way out? Pos­si­bly. If the main ac­tors – the Na­tional League for Democ­racy-led gov­ern­ment, the Tat­madaw, armed eth­nic groups and ma­jor in­dus­try ac­tors – could agree on a more re­al­is­tic jade tax­a­tion of roughly 50pc of sales and ne­go­ti­ate be­fore­hand a dis­tri­bu­tion of those rev­enues, then there could be a ba­sis for a united fed­eral na­tion in which the eth­nic states have a share of their own re­sources and some mean­ing­ful au­ton­omy.

If con­flict ceased then there would be more money to in­vest in roads, elec­tric­ity, ed­u­ca­tion and health. It would also be eas­ier for the gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate with China if they have a stronger han­dle on their own do­mes­tic is­sues.

Myan­mar needs a healthy re­la­tion­ship with China but not a neo-colo­nial one. A health­ier re­la­tion­ship should in­clude en­ergy and goods trade be­tween Myan­mar and China, ne­go­ti­at­ing bet­ter terms and con­di­tions for hy­dro­elec­tric in­vest­ments and hav­ing greater con­trol over some restive ar­eas in Shan State. There might even be some rev­enue left over from ad­dress­ing these is­sues to de-es­ca­late the vi­o­lence in Rakhine State, which is yet an­other threat to Myan­mar’s democ­racy and unity.

The cur­rent peace pro­cess is not nec­es­sar­ily con­ducive to a grand bar­gain. The mil­i­tary be­lieves that it must de­feat the eth­nic rebels and then, per­haps, ne­go­ti­ate a de­gree of care­fully con­trolled fed­er­al­ism. But a grand bar­gain re­quires real ne­go­ti­a­tion. Trust is very low be­tween the eth­nic groups, the NLD – which de­feated eth­nic par­ties in many of the re­cent na­tional elec­tions – and the mil­i­tary. In or­der to build this trust, poli­cies of for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tions, such as gov­ern­ment land grabs in eth­nic states, will have to be re­viewed and re­versed and pro­vi­sions for em­ploy­ing “re­tired” eth­nic mili­tias will need to be funded. Larger for­mal mil­i­tary bud­gets are also re­quired, even if con­flict sub­sides.

It will not be easy. But the al­ter­na­tives are worse. – East Asia Fo­rum

Photo: AFP

Bull­doz­ers have clawed cav­ernous trenches at the no­to­ri­ous jade mines of Hpakant in Kachin State.

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