When military dictators talk about walking the road to democracy, cynicism and distrust are inevitable. It does not matter if the general is a beleaguered Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan or an emboldened Than Shwe of Myanmar.Contempt for elected officials and insouciance towards international opinion are the hallmarks of such men.
When the Myanmarese general declared a seven-step “road map” to democracy,reported on Saturday, a mix of cynicism and resignation was inevitable. The general announced the creation of a committee to draft a new constitution after 14 years of deliberations. These deliberations, by a national convention, lacked one essential ingredient: legitimacy. What else can a constitution be for a bunch of generals but a plaything?
Two days before the general laid out the “road map”, some 3,500 gem merchants congregated to his country to buy precious stones. More are expected to come to themid-year gem emporium. Myanmar accounts for 90% of the world’s rubies. This year, some 5,500 lots of jade, gems and pearls are expected to be sold. The annual revenue from such sales is around $100 million. Merchants have come from a large number of countries, and many of them have officially spoken against military rule in the country.
As the Irrawady flows quietly, two things are clear. One, Myanmar is in the grip of what economists call a “resource curse”, and two, the abysmal failure of the international community to act concertedly to bring democracy to Myanmar.
In simple terms, a resource curse results in a country with an abundance of natural resources growing much slower than those without them. It’s a paradox of plenty. In some countries, it may be due to the neglect of manufacturing and an overt focus on exports of natural resources. In others such as Myanmar, it’s the control of these resources by military oligarchs that leads to the problem.
The country is perhaps the poorest among its peers in South-East Asia. In GDP (purchasing power parity terms), it ranks at 66. In comparison, Indonesia stands at 17 and Thailand at 23. Even neighbour Bangladesh is way ahead at 33. On the other hand, Myanmar has a tidy pile of natural gas reserves of 271.6 billion cubic metres. Its main exports are natural gas, wood, gems and an assortment of other natural items. Bangladesh has just half of what Myanmar does, at 135.8 billion cubic metres. The latter has resisted calls for export of natural gas. That may or may not be a good idea. Yet, interspersed with bouts of military rule, democracy seems to have done a world of good to that country.
Democracy, with its imperfections and all, is a must if Myanmar is to move ahead.
The response of the international community, too, has been disappointing. If West African diamonds are labelled “conflict diamonds” and their trade abhorred, no such thing has taken place with respect to products from Myanmar. An itinerant UN official, a pious statement of hope, and a few demonstrations here and there are all that one can see. Of course, the generals continue to strut about in Naypyidaw without let or hindsrance.
More than India or China, it is incumbent on Myanmar’s partners in Asean to make the generals see sense. Here, it’s a combination of trade and political resources, of which Asean has more than India, that will count. After all, Myanmar is more in the South-East Asian orbit than a South Asian one.
If, in the world of realpolitik, countries have interests to preserve, it should not be forgotten how fragile those interests are.
More so when these interests are divorced from those of the people in countries such as Myanmar. All the resources that countries may want can be secured equally well in a democracy. It would certainly come with a bonus of legitimacy and peace.
(What should be done to usher democracy in Myanmar? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org)