Our obscure, tightly controlled neighbour Myanmar has been in the news of late. Last September, protests against the military regime, led by monks, were suppressed by shooting. After Cyclone Nargis hit on 2 May, despite a death toll of more than 100,000, outside non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and relief workers were refused free access to help the survivors. Medical supplies were channelled through and handled by the military regime, raising an outcry in the world press, with widespread accusations of criminal neglect.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Expectations were that the death toll from waterborne diseases would mount sharply. Surprisingly, the situation seems to be kind of settling down. On 18 June, The New York Times quoted reliable sources from reputed NGO Doctors Without Borders as saying its worst fears about epidemics have not materialized. There have not been many additional deaths. People are not protesting the military’s ban or control of outside relief efforts, but seem to have stoically accepted it.
These developments have prompted me to refine some conjectures as to when discontent against a dictatorship boils over, and when it simmers down or merely festers. Peering into a Burmese haze (with almost no knowledge about the country until some recent reading), here are some relevant thoughts.
First, some background information about Myanmar (formerly Burma). With a population of about 47 million, and an area about one-fifth of India, it shares a border of about 1,400km with us. Under the British, it was about the most prosperous and pleasant places in the region. Natural resource-rich, it had a big agricultural surplus, high literacy levels and an active press.
Now, it is classified by the United Nations as one of the least developed nations. What a change. In 1962, after more than a decade of ethnic strife, General Ne Win took over and launched “The Burmese Way to Socialism”. “Almost immediately, he slammed the shutters and switched off the lights,” to cite a sentence from Amitav Ghosh’s informative, insightful 1996 travelogue about Cambodia and Burma.
The military continues to rule. But Ne Win himself was forced to resign in 1988, following widespread protests which started in March that year, and the shooting of several hundred demonstrators. What led a solidly entrenched dictator to be suddenly unseated after 26 years? I picked up some clues from a fascinating book, Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop (2005). The author is a Burmese language scholar from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, writing under the pseudonym Emma Larkin for her and others’ safety.
Larkin’s book itself is mostly a literary investigation of the context of Orwell’s writing, and a description of her travels searching for his roots in Burma, where there were a large number of Anglo-Burmans. Born in India, Orwell served in the 1920s, in his 20s, as a police officer in Burma. He wrote his early novel Burmese Days based on those experiences. Orwell, of course, is most known for his famous satires on dictatorships —Animal Farm, and also Nineteen Eighty Four. Larkin makes the case that Orwell’s experiences in Burma shaped much of his later writing. According to her, educated Burmese, half in earnest, joke that these three books are an eerily prophetic trilogy about their country.
Back to the 1988 events. On one page, which attracted my attention as an economist, Larkin describes the currency reform introduced by Ne Win in late 1987. The tantrum-throwing general dabbled in numerology and was obsessed with the number nine. He tried to change the decimal-based currency system to a base of nine. This botched currency reform led to people’s savings being wiped out on a large scale. The March uprising by students spread to monks, workers and other groups, culminating in the Four Eights Movement — a nationwide strike on 8/8/88, which led to thousands being shot.
The above discussion of the unseating of Ne Win is not meant to be a general explanation of why dictators or governments get overthrown. It just points out critical connections. The protests and shootings last September in Yangon, Burma’s capital followed a fourfold hike in the price of petrol in August.
The ravages of inflation cut across the whole population. By contrast, the political aftermath to the junta’s decision to ban outside relief efforts for Cyclone Nargis, which affected at most a few million people in the region, has been tame.
Sudden, sharp inflation tends to foster political instability, as John Maynard Keynes eloquently pointed out, observing the German hyperinflation of the early 1920s. In China, the student-led protest for democracy that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre in May 1989 followed sharply rising inflation. In Indonesia, after ruling for more than three decades, president Suharto resigned in 1998. The Indonesian rupiah collapsed during the Asian crisis, and inflation went up from about 5% to more than 80%. Hoarding was widespread and rice riots did occur.
In India, after crude oil prices were raised fourfold by Opec in October 1973, petrol prices were increased quickly and sharply. Inflation rose to above 20% for two years in a row. Around that time, an all India railway strike, and an all India anti-government agitation, were launched. Grave political turmoil followed. Bottom line — right now, with crude oil prices at record highs, and no let-up in sight, expect very tough times ahead.
Vivek Moorthy is a professor at IIM, Bangalore. Comment at email@example.com