The Burmese Way to Capitalism Junta Frees Economy; Political Freedom and Dancing Must Wait
Kenneth J. Stier, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
AS a young man, U Kyaw Tin used to spend Saturday nights squiring ladies on dance floors at the numerous ballrooms that dotted this once-sophisticated capital. During the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, this was the most colorful city in Southeast Asia, outshining even Singapore, and revelers boogied to the latest tunes into the wee hours.
But that was before Gen. Ne Win nipped the country's brief bloom of democratic rule with his 1962 military coup, just 14 years after independence from the British in 1948.
Soon afterward, in a fit of rage at seeing his favorite daughter swooning with a diplomat on a hotel dance floor - or so the story goes - the general banned dancing.
Twenty-six years of austerity followed, the result of Ne Win's "Burmese Way to Socialism," a socialist experiment that required the explusion of just about all foreigners - Europeans, Chinese, and Indian businessmen - and things foreign. It mostly masked an increasingly brutal military rule.
After taking over from Ne Win, who stepped down in 1988 following a democratic uprising, a new military government said it would renounce socialism and eventually restore democratic rule.
Five years into this "new order" under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), U Kyaw Tin, a former banker who now makes ends meet by banging boards into bookcases, says there is little in Burma (also called Myanmar) to rejoice over.
"Sure, they have loosened up in the last couple of years, but you have to know these are basically still the same hoods, and they will keep most things for themselves," he says, a cravat wrapped rakishly around a neck that still tracks ladies passing by his front stoop.
His is a common refrain, but not the only one heard here nowadays.
Businessmen are generally more upbeat about SLORC's liberalization - not just well-connected businessmen, but also small-scale entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of the new space the government created for them when it legalized the country's huge black market.
Farmers, too, are more prosperous. They now have to sell only about 10 percent of their output to the state for less-than-market prices.
Undoing the mechanisms of socialism is less daunting in Burma than in the former Soviet Union or China, because collectivization was never imposed on a large scale. Three-quarters of the country's output is still in private hands - most of that in the agricultural sector but also in trade, transportation, and small-scale industry.
Responding to new economic incentive, the farm sector has begun producing substantial surpluses and, in the view of some agricultural experts, the country is on its way to becoming a major food exporter as it was in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The government has ended its monopoly in a number of businesses (including gems, wood, and banking), and encouraged the formation of private firms, including joint ventures with the state, to take up the new space. Trade within the country has been freed and commerce with neighboring countries legalized.
The result is that the country - or at least the major cities where foreigners (and now foreign reporters) are allowed to visit - has markets filled with cheap consumer goods from China, Thailand, and India, quenching a demand never adequately satisfied by the decrepit state sector. There is also an abundance of electronic gadgetry, and automobile ownership is increasing 30 percent a year. Unlike in neighboring Thailand, however, traffic jams are still a malady of the future.
But all this just lends a patina of prosperity to a place that remains seriously rundown.
"They have been living from money under the mattress for the last 20 to 30 years," observes a longtime Western resident. Several years after the door was thrown open again for foreign investors, "productive investment is awfully absent," he adds. …