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Weekly Roundup: Burma Emerges

   /   Apr 9th, 2012Weekly Roundup

Burma: On the Threshold of Democracy?

Civil society showed its force this week in Burma.  The people’s call for a more democratic nation finally came through when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 43 of the 45 seats available for byelection.  It was a surprise, not just for Western powers, which have kept Burma under tight sanctions, but for the locals who’ve lived in isolation for decades.

The Nobel Peace Prize Winner is everywhere post elections – in pop culture, in the media, and in election paraphernalia:  She stands watch over tea shops and street stalls, dangles from rear-view mirrors. Not long ago, you could be jailed for having her portrait. Now, the Lady is ubiquitous.

For a country that’s lived under the radar for so long, the attention has been unexpected and is going beyond the political realms.  For example, ABC Lateline ran a story on a young pop group that’s adopted a more political tone after the win – an unlikely twist that’s inspired the youth to get involved.

But Rolf Rosenkranz of the new development-focused site, Devex, said that the recent events in Burma raise questions about the intent of development aid-  to truly develop or to promote personal interests:

For the global development community at large, these events raise age-old questions, such as: What is the downside of aid becoming a tool for donors eager to realize political, economic or security interests — whether it be to entice democratic reform or explore markets overseas?

Adrian Hamilton echoed this in the Independent, stating that there’s little evidence to prove that the sanctions had any effect.  So, what will be the result of all this talk of easing up sanctions, of opening up Myanmar to the global marketplace?  Hamilton wasn’t optimistic:

Because that is what Western politicians are seeking, in their fundamentally patronising talk of easing sanctions here and keeping them there: a form of ownership.

Hillary Clinton, who spoke earlier this week to the press, said that the US was prepared to let private US aid groups into the country to push “democracy building, health and education, and to give select Burmese officials and politicians permission to visit the US, relaxing the longstanding visa bans,” according to the Guardian.

Despite the political situation, some non-profits and social entrepreneurs have been able to penetrate the isolated nation.  Most notably, Proximity Designs, which works closely with Stanford’s D. School on developing low-cost farming and irrigation tools for farmers, was started by Debbie Aung Din and Jim Taylor who moved to the country in 2004.   Working with Burmese engineers, they developed foot pumps for the BOP market; the cheapest pump priced at $13, sold 8,000 pieces in the first month.

Examples such as Proximity beg the question, is aid really the answer or are more grassroots efforts successful?  Even the political events led by Suu Kyi have been a culmination of grassroots-level civil society, pressing for reform from the governing regime and the military junta.

And even though this week has been a milestone for Burma, many are questioning if this democratic spirit can survive.   As the New Yorker reports, the real challenge will arise in 2015 when Burma’s next general elections are scheduled.  The aim then is to eliminate the guaranteed seats for the military junta and open them up to a vote.

The results are yet to be determined though.   Joshua Hammer of the New Yorker makes this comparison in his blog post, Burma’s Uncertain future: A colleague I spoke to in Rangoon says the atmosphere there is like “Eastern Europe in 1991 and 1992. It’s revolutionary.”

No one really knows where this is going. More economic development, more democracy, or just another phase in a long time dictatorship?

Worthwhile Reads:

  • Socio-economic inequality spreading in Europe, raising questions about the effectiveness of the social welfare system, NYTimes reports.
  • Reem Khouri attends Skoll’s World Economic Forum and distills it down to the fundamentals for social entrepreneurs.
  • Devex looks at the Millennium Villages Project, which estimates that it’ll cost $12,000 per household to lift them out of poverty.  True or overblown?

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