Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Sayagyi and Sage: Hla Myint, Myanmar's "Classical" Economist

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Sayagyi and Sage: Hla Myint, Myanmar's "Classical" Economist

Article excerpt

Fifty years of military rule in Myanmar brought many detrimental effects to the country's economy, but not the least of these was the loss of human capital that it caused. This loss had many manifestations, including the effective exile of many of Myanmar's best and brightest. Hla Myint stands in the first rank of these able exiles, and his loss was grievous. As he was an economist whose ideas were part of the intellectual framework for the economic policies of Asia's "tiger economies", it is no little irony that his ideas were dismissed as synonymous with colonial policies, and that Myanmar so comprehensively went in other directions.

In February 2012, Hla Myint made a triumphant return to Myanmar as the honoured guest at a public celebration at the Yangon Institute of Economics, an institution that, although subject to countless transformations across the decades, was the direct descendent of the economics department that he re-created out of the wreckage of the Second World War. (1) To many in the audience on that occasion, his eminence would have been a revelation, itself something of an articulate commentary on how far Myanmar's education system had declined. (2) Notwithstanding, and not pausing for regret for what had been wasted, Hla Myint urged confidence in pushing ahead with reforms--political and institutional as well as economic--as the best way to surmount the anxiety that Myanmar lacked the administrative capacity to change its circumstances. Hla Myint addressed this concern in a way that was a microcosm of his thinking across the decades: administrative capacity, like that of national productive possibilities more broadly, is not immutably fixed. Openness, exchange, growth--such attributes could take Myanmar forward, just as they had transformed many of the country's peers and neighbours.

The purpose of this paper is to present the ideas of Hla Myint in their broadest sense, to locate these across his life and times and to outline his vision for Myanmar's economic future. The paper begins, accordingly, with an account of Hla Myint's origins and formative years, his role as a policy advisor and as an educator and his eventual effective exile. Overseas, Hla Myint went on to make extraordinary contributions to the discipline of economics, but especially to that part of the discipline which we would now label "development economics". These contributions are outlined with an eye to their relevance to Myanmar's situation, both in the past and now. Turning to present day concerns, the paper outlines Hla Myint's current thinking and advocacy for reform in Myanmar. The paper concludes with the argument that it will be through the embrace of "home grown" reforms, and of the legacy of its greatest economist, that Myanmar will be best placed to redeem its once, and future, promise.

Life and Times

Hla Myint was born in 1920, in Bassein (now Pathein), the port city and capital of Myanmar's Ayeyarwady region, and long a hub for rice milling and export. Hla Myint's father died young, and his mother thereafter ran a small shop in order to ensure that the family survived. (3) Possessing a certain degree of business acumen, she was later to expand the shop, and eventually moved to Rangoon. She was later remarried, to a government official of modest rank named U Hla Tin. The latter was the younger brother of U Tun Shein, a prominent politician from Mandalay who, with U Pu and U Ba Pe, had been part of a delegation from the Young Mens' Buddhist Association that visited London in 1919 to call for constitutional reform in Burma (Taylor 2008, p. 163). U Tun Shein had died the year Hla Myint was born, however, minimizing the leverage of the only real "connections" that the family enjoyed.

Notwithstanding his relatively humble beginnings, Hla Myint's promise did not take long to be noticed. Accelerated through his schooling, Hla Myint was encouraged by the headmaster of the school that he attended to apply to the University of Rangoon to study economics while still just fourteen years old. …

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